Daily Archives: June 4, 2022

Six degrees of separation: from Sorrow and Bliss to…

Is it really the start of another month? How did that happen? Well, my calendar tells me that it’s the first Saturday in June and so it’s time for Six Degrees of Separation where you link the titles of six books to one selected by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest. You can read how the meme works here.

For June she selected Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, which I had never heard of and about which I know absolutely nothing. So, I’m going just by the title – in particular looking for titles of three words linked by ‘and’ in the middle.

Reason & Lovelessness is a collection of essays and reviews written by Australian author and cultural critic Barry Hill over a period of thirty five years. It ranges far and wide and I must confess that I often felt left behind. This is not an easy book, written by “a truly learned man” as Tom Griffiths notes in his introduction. It demands intellectual chops and familiarity with an eclectic and erudite reading and artistic menu that strays far beyond my knowledge. I felt a bit intimidated by it, frankly.

Heat and Light, written by Indigenous author Ellen Van Neerven is in three parts. The first part, Heat, comprises a number of short stories about the Kresinger family which interweaves magic realism and contemporary indigenous family life. The stories are tangentially connected, a technique I enjoy, giving them stand-alone status within something larger. The second section, Water, contained only one story and it was probably my favourite one. Kaden is a young Aboriginal woman employed in a scientific program engaged with research on ‘sandplants’, a marine lifeform that has been found to have almost human intelligence. The blurb on the back of the book tells me that in the final section ‘Light’ “familial ties are challenged and characters are caught between a desire for freedom and a sense of belonging”. Yes, but I must confess to finding this last section bitsy and insubstantial. So, for me, a bit of a curate’s egg of a book: good in places.

From the title Sex and Suffering, you might not expect a history of the Royal Women’s Hospital, but this is what you get in this book. Historian Janet McCalman’s book follows a chronological approach, with seven sections covering roughly 20-30 year periods. The emphasis varies in the sections, from the clinical (particularly in the sections discussing sepsis and antisepsis) to the social and structural (where the judgments of upper-middle class doctors and the Board of Management were trained onto the predominantly working-class and migrant clientele). Throughout most of the book, she draws on the case notes of individual women- helpfully supplemented with a glossary of medical terms in the margin. A second thread that runs through the book is a commentary on class and gender in Melbourne where she contrasts the more feminist, women-centred Queen Victoria hospital with the the more traditional, male-dominated Royal Women’s Hospital. I enjoyed it up until she reached the 1970s, when the people she was writing about were still alive (and no doubt reading this book), at which point the book became a fairly conventional and and less incisive and critical institutional history.

While we’re talking about sex (which we weren’t really), there’s Adam Kuper’s Incest and Influence, which isn’t really about incest either. Instead he looks at two types of marriage in bourgeois England – those between cousins, and those between in-laws- which at various times were perceived as either a thoroughly good thing or illegal. Kuper then goes on to examine three different constellations of  marriage among three prominent 19th/early 20th century circles of influence:  the Wedgewood/Darwin group, the Clapham Sect of Wilberforces, Thorntons, Stephens etc who were influential in the abolition of slavery, and finally the Bloomsbury circle.

In terms of 19th century families, who can go past Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I had started it many times, but I didn’t actually finish it until I was 54 years old! It’s not really difficult once you overcome your fear of forgetting all the names and it is just all-encompassing. I found myself unable to pick up anything else to read for some time after. In my review, I went on to talk about another three word ‘&’ work – Isaiah Berlin’s 80-page  essay The Fox and the Hedgehog (PDF full-text) so I guess that I’m cheating putting two titles in the one selection. In this essay, Berlin talks about Tolstoy and his writing of history – it’s well worth reading.

And while we’re talking about writing history, let me finish off with E.P Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters. The full title of the book is Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act.  I knew that the Black Act referred to the death penalty applied to crimes like poaching and the cutting of trees. I had previously understood that it was the passing of the Black Act that led to so much transportation to Australia, but it is not as simple as that. One of the first surprises of this book is that the Black Act was not so called,  as I assumed,  as a description of its severity.  Instead, the “Black” refers to the practice of blacking faces to disguise the perpetrators undertaking the depredations under cover of night. Like the anti-terrorist legislation of our post-9/11 world, the Black ActS (because it was an ever-expanding suite of legislation) were introduced in haste and expanded way beyond the original intention.

Next month the Six Degrees of Separation meme will start with Wintering by Katherine May. Once again, I haven’t read it, but the title sounds very appropriate for July.