Category Archives: Book reviews

‘As Swallows Fly’ by L.P. McMahon

2021, 384 p.

I had not heard of this book, or its author until L.P.McMahon was invited to be the Ivanhoe Reading Circle’s annual guest speaker. His book, As Swallows Fly is set in Pakistan and Melbourne, but Lawrie himself hails more locally from Rosanna as a child and ended up as Professor of Nephrology at Monash University. That local connection may well have been why the Ivanhoe Reading Circle invited him to speak. His immersion in the world of medicine comes through clearly in his book, particularly at the end, and from his talk we learned that he and his wife had visited a Catholic mission in a Pakistani village which largely mirrors the village in the opening chapters of the book. So, in many ways McMahon is following the injunction “write what you know”.

Although this book is fiction, it evokes shades of the story of Malala Yousafzai, who was severely injured after a Taliban assassination attempt, and was treated in a UK hospital. In this book, however, young Pakistani and Christian Malika was attacked as a more personalized act of resentment and power, and she ended up in Australia more on account of her mathematical brilliance which was being wasted in a small village, than because of her injuries. She boarded at a private school and attended extension activities at the University of Melbourne. As a back-stop, her village priest in Pakistan put her in contact with Dr Kate Davenport, a plastic surgeon, who assumes incorrectly that Malika is hiding her face behind a veil for cultural/religious reasons. Rather implausibly, neither Malika nor Kate realize at first the possibilities for healing that the situation could provide.

The book has several ‘starts’ before arriving at the present day. The opening pages are a prologue set in Melbourne, twenty-three years earlier where we sense the tension between a teenaged Kate and her mother; Part One commences in Rural Pakistan five years earlier as we learn how Malika came to live in the Christian village and come under the care of Ayesha, her foster mother, along with Tahir, a Muslim boy, after a car accident. Part Two finally brings us to present-day Melbourne where Kate, now a successful plastic surgeon, is cleaning out her now-deceased mother’s house when she is approached to care for Malika on the weekends. Part Three takes us to Malika’s boarding school, where she struggles with the other girls, who are jealous of her brilliance. Part Four explores the evolving relationship between Malika and Kate, and expands on Kate’s own working life and the political struggles in a high-stress, ego-driven profession, along with the family emotional baggage that she is still dealing with. If you think that there’s going to be a Cinderella ending, between the plastic-surgeon and her damaged protege – there’s not.

As you can see, there’s quite a lot going on here- rather too much, I think. I was rather surprised that McMahon chose to write from the point of view of two women- Kate and Malika- and he generally carried it off sensitively, with just a few infelicities. By making Kate a plastic surgeon, McMahon was able to explore ideas of facial perfection and imperfection, but at times I felt that he betrayed his male gaze in his descriptions of women. The author’s own medical experience comes through, especially in the sections dealing with professional rivalry with other specialists, and in medical terminology when describing clinical conditions. I certainly don’t share Malika’s gift for mathematics, and I just have to take on trust that her fascination with the flocking behaviour of swallows as a mathematical problem is more than just a metaphor for being on the edges of the crowd. Some of the characters seemed rather one-dimensional: the only mentions of Muslim characters were negative, and Sam the receptionist was so brazen as to be a caricature. The narrative relied heavily on dialogue, which at times verged on the banal and the writing felt forced at times.

In spite of my reservations about aspects of this book, I found myself more emotionally engaged with the characters than I expected to be, and sat up in bed until quite late to finish the book. And I’m always attracted to books set in my own home town, and he wrote Melbourne well.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: purchased e-book.

Other reviews: Lisa at ANZBookLovers enjoyed the book (probably more than I did) and reviewed it here.

‘The Coal curse: Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future’ by Judith Brett QE 78

2020, 75 p. Follow up correspondence in QE 79 The End of Certainty, Katherine Murphy

My son will testify that I have about 50 Quarterly Essays on my shelf, most of which have not even been opened. I seem to put them aside thinking “Ooooh- I must read this after I have finished reading….” and somehow I never do. I was impelled to read Judith Brett’s The Coal Curse, released in 2020, after hearing her participation in Matt Bevan’s Australia, If you’re Listening podcast.

She started writing her essay just after Christmas in 2019, when our cities had been smothered in smoke and our newspapers carried those stark hell-red photos of people on the beach at Mallacoota, waiting for small boats to evacuate them. She finished writing it in May 2020, in the midst of our early coronovirus lockdowns. As the fires burned, she was angry. Ross Garnaut had predicted fires of this scale back in 2008 but Angus Taylor had returned from the Madrid UN-convened climate change conference, declaring that we should be proud of our climate change efforts.

I have written this essay in an attempt to do something constructive with my grief and anger, and my fear for our collective future; not just to fume and blame, but to try to understand.

p.8

As a historian, she looked for explanations in the past – in those decisions and events that have shaped our present actions and future possibilities.

This is just a fancy way of saying that history matters, but it does shift our attention from the contingencies of events and personalities to structures and institutions. This essay is about the history of Australia as a commodity-exporting nation and its political consequences. Economic history is unfashionable nowadays. Economists focus on the modelling and management of the present and historians are more interested in stories and experience, and in uncovering diversity and neglected voices. Economic history is dry and hard to narrativise. But how a country makes its living can explain a lot.

p.8

Her essay is in two parts: first, a historic overview of how Australia came to become ‘resource cursed’ and second, how the resource lobby has captured successive Australian governments, but most particularly the Liberal/National Party coalition. She notes that in 2017 Australia came 93rd out of 133 economies ranked according to the diversity and complexity of exports. New Zealand was 51. In 2018-19 seven of our top ten exports were from the quarry and one from the farm (just as Donald Horne warned in The Lucky Country). In order, they were: iron ores and concentrates, coal, natural gas, education-related travel services, personal travel except education, gold, aluminium ores and concentrates, beef, crude petroleum, copper ores and concentrates. Neither the quarry nor the farm really generates much employment, no matter how much they crow about their importance to “jobs- jobs- jobs”. When Australia was first settled, our economy relied on wool being loaded onto sailing ships for Britain, our major export destination until Britain joined the European Common Market in 1973, after years of signalling that it would do so. Australia was saved by Japan and its demand for iron ore to make steel, replacing Britain as our top export destination in 1967. In 2009-10 top spot went to China. Between 1980 and 2013 there was a tripling of coal exports. In the early 2000s liquefied coal seam gas joined the ranks of the top exports, and we are now the world’s largest LNG exporter.

Against this reliance on primary produce and mineral wealth, neither of which require a large workforce, Australia needed to industrialize in order to create sufficient jobs for its population, especially after the gold rush. Victorian liberals (i.e. colonial liberals coming from the state of Victoria) were protectionists, flying in the face of both NSW policy and the current British economic theory of Free Trade. Protection won the day when the Australian states federated, with a goal of Australians buying Australian-made goods. Australian manufacturing was turbo-charged by WWII. Migration, foreign investment and protection combined to create a greatly expanded Australian manufacturing sector, peaking in the late 50s-early60s at just under 30% of GDP. We could have developed an export-oriented manufacturing industry, but tariff protection made local management lazy. But Australia was swimming against the international tide, which was increasingly moving to cut trade barriers. Under a Liberal government, the Tariff Board under the chairmanship of Alf Rattigan itself proposed a review of tariffs in 1967; and with a change of government Whitlam cut tariffs in 1973 (although Fraser reinstated some of them). By the time Hawke came to power in 1983, neoliberalism was becoming dominant, and it was a Labor government that, with the aim of revitalizing manufacturing, floated the dollar, opened the banking and finance sectors, and reduced tariffs to a single rate of 5% by 1996, with exemptions carved out for textile, clothing and footwear, and the car industry. However, looking back, this policy failed in revitalizing manufacturing, if that was its aim. Tourism and education thrived, but manufacturing did not. From 12% of GDP in 2000, by 2006 manufacturing was just over 10% of GDP, 5.8% by 2013. Its share of employment at 7.5% was just a third of 2007’s 21% of the workforce. The rise of China and its cheap goods knocked manufacturing out completely, but the demand for iron ore disguised the effect. It was China’s demand that helped Australia weather the 2007-09 Global Financial Crisis, and by now Australia has lost the capacity to manufacture things- something brought home painfully by the COVID pandemic and the supply chain problems that continue more than two years later.

This might not be a problem, were it not for the rising carbon dioxide levels, with a discernable effect on global temperatures. But it is a problem, and the entrenched fossil-fuel industry is fighting back. At first the fight was against indigenous land rights and the ability of indigenous owners to veto mining development. In this, the Australian Mining Industries Council joined with the National Party in opposing native title, thus promoting a grizzled human face in an akubra hat to an industry dominated by machines. Having hobbled native title, the mining industry entrenched its power further by lobbying, political advocacy, donations – and most disturbingly – the churn of personnel between government and lobby groups and back again in what Guy Pearse called ‘The Greenhouse Mafia’. It is certainly alive and well. Just look at the way that the government pounced on a ‘gas-led’ recovery as the solution to COVID, our indecent haste to ship coal over to Ukraine, and most recently, the number of mining-industry-related people that the LNP government has just appointed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Two decades of cultivation of a network of climate skeptics by the Lavoisier Group, the IPA and the Murdoch press have made climate change a toxic brew for any government. Many of our politicians, predominantly on the Coalition side but also amongst Labor, have been captured by this lobby. But resistance is rising from unexpected quarters. The Lock the Gate movement opposing coal and coal seam gas developments is challenging the social licence of the fossil-fuel companies, and renewables are becoming more attractive as an investment. However, Brett is clear-eyed about the continuing power of the fossil-fuel lobby, and the probability that

…our leaders will stick with what they know and eschew innovation, like the men of the early 1960s, when Donald Horne complained that decades of tariff protection had produced a “look-no-brains attitude”. The signs are it will be more business as usual than embrace of the new.

p.73

One of the advantages of reading a Quarterly Essay months (ahem- years) after it has been published, is that you get to read the correspondence generated by the essay in the following volume. Most of the correspondents in Issue 79 concurred with Brett, although rather predictably Andy Lloyd (Rio Tinto) came out with most of the fossil-fuel lobby talking points that Peter Christoff (University of Melbourne) predicted (e.g. we don’t contribute much to carbon; if we don’t sell, someone else will; technology -especially CCS- is the answer). Tim Buckley from the Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis pointed out that many investment and superannuation funds are divesting from fossil-fuel industries. I really enjoyed Zoe Whitton from Citi’s Environmental, Social and Government Research Team, who wrote of the paradox that residents of the New Jersey shore who survived through Hurricane Sandy were even less likely to believe in climate change than before. She cited George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, where he suggested that the desire to return to something like normal, to rebuild anew, to express solidarity and perseverance meant that people resisted the prospect that the same thing could happen again. Often the alternatives are so unappealing that we choose not to consider them.

It is outside the scope of Brett’s 2020 essay of course, but I think of the flood waters that have swirled around homes in Queensland and northern NSW multiple times in recent years, and successive floods occuring even within weeks. These ‘events’ are not one-offs anymore, and the lie in terms like ‘one in 1000 year flood’ has been exposed. The cost of rebuilding communities razed by fire, and the piling up of mountains of sodden furniture and carpets, again and again and again will eventually sap the will to persevere and rebuild.

Perhaps then we can shake off the Coal Curse.

Rating: 8/10

Sourced from: my own Quarterly Essay subscription

‘City of Friends’ by Joanna Trollope

2017, 327 p.

One of the delights of being in a bookgroup is when you find yourself loving a book that you would never have chosen otherwise. One of the burdens of being in a bookgroup is when you find yourself gritting your teeth to get through a book that you would never have chosen otherwise. City of Friends falls into the latter category.

The narrative revolves between four middle-aged, successful, middle-class London-based women, who met years earlier in an economics course at university, where they were vastly outnumbered by the other male students. Gaby is an investment banker, married with three children. Melissa is a management consultant and single mother of a teenaged son. Beth is an author and academic, expert in business psychology and in a relationship with a younger woman, while Stacey is a senior partner at a private equity firm, married but without children, and suddenly called upon to care for her mother with dementia. Does that entice you to follow them over 327 pages? I didn’t think so.

I’m not a reader who has to like the characters, but I do need to have a frisson of interest in them. I’m aware that Trollope is trying to illustrate modern life and dilemmas – the role of daughters in caring for aging parents, step-children, flexible working, ‘having it all’- but really, I found that I just didn’t care.

If I dislike a book, I don’t usually review it, especially if it is a new writer. But Joanna Trollope OBE has sold more than 7 million copies of her books, so I think that she can do without this reader.

My rating: 4/10

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups.

‘Quiet Dissenter: The life and thought of an Australian pacifist Eleanor May Moore 1875-1949’ by Malcolm Saunders

1993, 361 p & notes

Actually, I don’t know if I would have called Eleanor May Moore a quiet dissenter. She had plenty to say over her long secretary-ship of the Victorian branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and she became so publicly identifiable with WILPF in Victoria that she was almost indistinguishable from it.

“So who was Eleanor May Moore?”, you may ask. Of solidly middle-class background, she was born in 1875 and educated at Presbyterian Ladies College. Rather unusually for her background, she attended Stott’s business college and trained as a stenographer. She attended Rev. Charles Strong’s Australian Church (of which, more anon) and when he suggested that the women of the church form a women-only and women-led peace group, she was there from the start. This became the Sisterhood of International Peace, which, along with Vida Goldstein’s Women’s Peace Army were represented at the international congress in Europe in 1919 which led to the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Eleanor Moore had attended the congress as the Sisterhood of International Peace’s delegate, along with Vida Goldstein and Cecilia John from Women’s Peace Army. The two Australian contingents had sprung from different impetuses: the Sisterhood from a progressive Christianity, and the Women Peace Army from the suffrage movement. After the war, Vida Goldstein distanced herself from the W.P.A which soon disbanded, leaving the Sisterhood as the Victorian branch of WILPF.

It was difficult to find a shipping passage back to Australia after the war, and Eleanor stayed for some time in Geneva, where she established a friendship with WILPF international secretary Emily Greene Balch and worked with her at WILPF headquarters. This placed her in good stead to be the linchpin of the Victorian branch, and she retained this position until a few years before her death in 1949.

She was obviously a strong presence and dominated the local WILPF’s stance on a range of matters- not just peace, but also White Australia, the Pacific, economic sanctions, military service, atomic warfare and eventually, absolute pacificism. With the rise of fascism, she became particularly fixed in her views that all war was wrong – a stance that put her at odds with her old friend Rev. Strong and the European branch of WILPF. It took its toll on the local branch of WILPF too, with its numbers dropping lower and lower as women left because of this adamant stance, and through the attritions of old age.

While there is much to admire in a life-long commitment to an organization, her long career with WILPF serves as a salutary warning for all volunteer organizations, really. There is a danger in one person becoming synonymous with an organization, and that while that person remains, other people will not step forward.

In assessing her life, Saunders notes that her politics were rooted in British liberalism, and at times she sounds almost Thatcher-esque in her emphasis on the individual, rather than collective groups like ‘society’, the ‘community’ or ‘the nation’. Prior to the First World War, she had been a strong supporter of the Federal Government, which had brought about many of the progressive, independent policies that “young” Australia became famous for. But this changed with the war and the heavy-handed War Precautions Act, and by the 1930s she believed that acquiescent obedience to government was the greatest threat to Australian democracy. She had doubts about Christianity, but considered religion extremely important, hence her attraction to the Australian Church and the Society of Friends (Quakers). She supported the White Australia policy and continued to do so when many other people in the peace movement and in WILPF itself believed that it should be abandoned.

This biography was produced by the Peace Research Centre, and would probably be almost impossible to procure today. Its production values are rather rudimentary, but the research is sound and well-supported by references, and Saunders has a clear-eyed view of both Moore’s strengths but also her short-comings. He has captured well the nature of commitment to an ideal, and the narrow line between inflexibility and fidelity to a principle. The WILPF that outlived her was a dwindling, increasingly antiquated body until other, more forward-looking women stepped into her place. But for sheer persistence, intelligence and unswerving steadfastness, Eleanor May Moore was an admirable woman who should probably be better known today.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

‘The Shortest History of the Soviet Union’ by Sheila Fitzpatrick

2022, 256p.

On 24 February Russia invaded Ukraine. On 1 March, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s small volume ‘The Shortest History of the Soviet Union’ was released. Although I’m sure that she takes no pleasure at all in this turn of events (indeed, you can read Fitzpatrick’s response here) – could there possibly be a better time to launch such a book? After all, we had all seen Vladimir Putin’s version of history during his speech given two days before the launch of the “special military action” where he declared Ukraine “an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space”. He blamed Lenin for the creation of modern Ukraine, with further gifts of territory by Stalin and Kruschev. Was any of this true? For those of us with sketchy knowledge of Russian and Soviet history, a small book on the Soviet Union is just what we need- and here it is.

Although the book spans the years 1922 to 1991, Fitzpatrick starts her book in 1980 in Brezhnev’s Russia, when a Conference of American Sovietologists confidently proclaimed that the Soviet Union would not become a political democracy, nor would it collapse, in the forseeable future. They were wrong. Within ten years it was gone. The abruptness of this development reflects Fitzpatrick’s stance that in history (certainly in the Soviet Union, and perhaps generally) there are few inevitabilities.

Historians’ narratives tend, by their nature, to make events seem inevitable….But this is not my intention with this Shortest History. My view is that there are as few inevitabilities in human history as there are in the individual lives that compose it. Things could always have turned out differently but for accidental encounters and global cataclysms, deaths, divorces and pandemics

p.11

Even though the Russian Revolutionaries thought that they had history taped, with everything under control and a firm view of what to expect:

The many ‘accidental’ changes of course and ‘spontaneous’ diversions along the way were simply irrelevant to this grand scheme, although they will play a large part in my Shortest History. They were not irrelevant to the life of people living in the Soviet Union, of course, and the gap between official rhetoric and lived experience was the stuff of the distinctively Soviet genre of political jokes (anekdoty) that bubbled under the surface as a constant, irreverent commentary. The contrast between ‘in principle’ (a stock Soviet phrase provoking immediate distrust, like ‘frankly’ in the West) and ‘in practice’ was one of the staples of the Soviet anekdot.

p.13

In her book, Fitzgerald illustrates this contrast between ‘in principle’ and ‘in practice’ and the place of happenstance and unexpected events throughout the history of the Soviet Union. Indeed it’s there right from the opening line of the first chapter:

The Russian Revolution was meant to spark off revolution throughout Europe. But that plan didn’t work, and what was left was a revolutionary state in Russia- the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) with Moscow as its capital

p.15

In principle, the Mensheviks should have taken control of the revolution: in practice the Bolsheviks did. In principle, workers of the world should have united behind the revolution: in practice, they kept fighting WWI. In principle, the proletariat should have led the uprising: in practice, the party had to do it for them. In principle, the peasants should have gladly handed over their land for collective farming: in practice, the state had to embark on dekulakization. In principle, glasnost and perestroika should have renewed and strengthened communism: in practice it shook it to the core. In principle, capitalism should have failed: in practice, it was USSR that failed.

There are seven chapters in the book, and a final conclusion. True to the name, the book deals with the Soviet Union, not Tsarist Russia which preceded it and it goes up to the fall of the Soviet Union. The conclusion deals with post-USSR events and the string of acronyms for the shifting constellation of allegiances afterwards.

Introduction

  1. Making the Union
  2. The Lenin Years and the Succession Struggle
  3. Stalinism
  4. War and Its Aftermath
  5. From ‘Collective Leadership’ to Khrushchev
  6. The Brezhnev Period
  7. The Fall

Conclusion

One of the things that this book reinforced for me is that ‘Russia’ is not the same as ‘Soviet Union’, even though I have tended to use the two terms interchangeably. Putin’s claim that Ukraine was invented by Lenin is based on the fact that, yes, the Bolsheviks did encourage nationalism in Ukraine and the other regions because they realized that it was impossible to eradicate it (hence acknowledging a pre-existing Ukrainian identity) and because the Russian core of the government did not want to be seen as, or act, as another version of the Tsarist Russian empire. Despite this, the other soviet states often complained of Russian chauvinism. The ‘Russia’ we see today really is Russia, with the old imperial two-headed eagle reinstated as a state symbol, and the restoration of the Orthodox church. Related to this is Putin’s admiration for Stalin as a nation builder and the hero of WWII. I hadn’t realized how much WWII has been engraved into the present-day Russian psyche.

Because so much of this story is party-political, it tends to be a rather top-down history with an emphasis on powerful men jostling for more power. The book broadens its emphasis from the Brezhnev era on, presumably because this is within living memory and as a researcher Sheila Fitzpatrick herself had more access to social history and personal observation (see my review of her memoir A Spy in the Archives). Here we see more women, and more everyday life.

I couldn’t help but read this book with an eye on Ukraine. Some of Russia’s recent actions make more sense to me now, even though I continue to condemn them. I hadn’t realized that Crimea was such a recent addition to Ukraine, having been handed over in 1954 by Khrushchev, who was born near the present Ukraine/Russian border and had been head of the Communist Party of Ukraine. I hadn’t realized that Ukraine, Belarus and Russia formed the core of Commonwealth of Independent States after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 – no wonder Ukraine is a hot-button country as far as Russia is concerned. Not excusable, but perhaps understandable.

Which is why, when we are increasingly sceptical of what we see and hear, a book like The Shortest History of the Soviet Union is so valuable. It is very readable, and it breathes life and colour into the greyness of the Soviet Union as it has been depicted to us. Fitzpatrick’s own sense of humour in distinguishing ‘in principle’ from ‘in practice’ is a light touch, and there is no false modesty in hiding her own contribution to Soviet history in the bibliography. And if ever there was a time to read this book, it is right now.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: review copy from Black Inc.

‘The Winter Road’ by Kate Holden

2021, 336 p

When I think of a ranger being killed, my mind skips immediately to Kenya and those brave, short, sinewy green-clad men of the Kenya Wildlife Service. The idea of a ranger being killed in Australia is so jarring that it is immediately memorable, and that’s the way it was for Kate Holden when Glen Turner was shot in Talga Lane, Croppa Creek, near Moree in 2014. His murderer, Ian Turnbull, aged 79 died in prison of heart attack, after being sentenced to 35 years imprisonment.

This book is quite a change from Kate Holden’s previous books: the first, In My Skin a wonderful memoir of heroin addiction and sex work; the second The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days a follow-up autobiography. Here she shuttles between reportage and reflection on a real-life crime which extends beyond a cold dirt road in Croppa Creek to a broader meditation on land, legacy and its meaning not just for Ian Turnbull and Glen Turner, but for both black and white Australians more generally.

We know that Glen Turner dies because she tells us, in the short prologue. The book then divides into three sections: Trespass, Murder and Inheritance. There is a chronological progress through the crime – lead-up, crime, and consequences- but the chapters themselves interweave a range of themes. Take Chapter Two, for example. It starts with a description of the Brigalow Belt that extends between Townsville and mid-NSW, the qualities of Brigalow Acacia harpohylla, the story of wheat in Australia, land-clearing legislation, clashes between Ian Turnbull and the Office of Environment and Heritage, land-clearing around Moree, and interactions between Turner and Turnbull. There is observation, reportage of conversations that Holden has held with the main protagonists, and desktop research drawing on the work of ecologists and historians. This interweaving continues throughout the book but I, as reader, I always felt that she was in control of the narrative, moving it steadily forward.

The book starts with the theme of ‘Trespass’, and there are different types of trespass at work here. Ian Turnbull’s trespass against the environmental law of the land; his accusation that Glen Turner, as a representative of government, was trespassing against his rights as a land-owner; the original trespass of white settlement onto indigenous land.

The emotional heart of the book for me comes in part 2 ‘Murder’, where she takes a slow-motion view of the murder. Here, too, there is an interweaving between the physical murder of Glen Turner, and the ecological ‘murder’ of the brigalow through the voracious demand for agricultural land. The murder itself, with Glen Turner and his old colleague Robert Strange bailed up by the gun-wielding Ian Turnbull in their departmental ute, took between twenty and thirty minutes. Twenty to thirty minutes. I think of shoot-outs or physical fights which, however long they might appear to the protagonists, are over in minutes. The thought of this deliberate, drawn out, highly personal, game of cat and mouse at sunset on a lonely dirt road is chilling.

Part 3 ‘Inheritance’ looks at the fall-out from the murder, for Ian Turnbull and his family; for Glen Turner’s family; for Robert Strange and other government employees; for the broader Croppa Creek community. It has truly been a poisoned inheritance. It seemed to me at the start of the book that she was at pains to represent all sides fairly, or at least to acknowledge the validity of their viewpoint from their perspective. But in Part 3, especially with the passing of weakened environmental laws that rendered Glen Turner’s death completely futile, it seems that Holden cannot withhold her judgment any longer. This is not a weakness: on the contrary, it would be weakness to continue to stand on the sidelines after all the exhaustive research she has undertaken.

This is non-fiction writing at its best. It is founded in research, which has been integrated with observation, conversation and reflection. It travels much further than that dirt road at sunset, interrogating Western society’s relationship with land and what it means to ‘own’ property. It is a beautiful piece of work

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: purchased e-book

‘Bruny’ by Heather Rose

2019, 424 p.

This book was nothing like I thought it would be. I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting a political thriller, a rather hum-drum love story and too many of my own political opinions stuffed down my throat. It does, however, raise questions about political expediency in a time of climate crisis while, rather unfortunately, ramping up anti-Chinese rhetoric.

The book is set in the near future, and a beautifully designed, two billion dollar bridge connecting Bruny Island and mainland Tasmania has just exploded. With an election on the horizon, the Chinese consortium funding the bridge receives clearance to bring in Chinese workers to ensure that the bridge meets its opening date schedule. Astrid Coleman, the sister of both the Tasmanian Premier ‘JC’ and (rather implausibly) also of the Tasmanian Opposition Leader Max, is summoned home to liaise between the pro- and anti- bridge lobby groups and, to a lesser extent, find out who sabotaged the bridge and why.

This professional summons by her brother is matched by the personal summons of family, with her father succumbing to dementia by quoting apposite slabs of Shakespeare and her mother in the last stages of cancer. She has a difficult relationship with her mother -and near the end of the book we learn why – and despite the different political allegiances of her siblings, she loves them both.

This near-future world is a plausible extrapolation of our own. A Trump-like US president has won a second term, there is a King on the throne in England and climate change is wreaking its own ongoing crisis. But I found the banging of the present-day political drum through Astrid’s first-person observations too blatant and too instrusive, even though they match my own. Who knows what I would have thought of them had I been on the other side of the political divide. Moreover, I suspect that many of the celebrity-culture references will date badly. I found the political scenario, when it was finally revealed, to be rather implausible, but nonetheless interesting to contemplate.

The descriptions of scenery are really well written, and Rose captures well the sense of love that place can engender in us. But the whole book felt a little too ‘Womens Weekly Good Read’ for me – although that I doubt that it would earn a gold sticker from that august publication on account of its political stance. But overall, the book felt rather too much like someone shouting at the television. I can do that for myself: I don’t need my books to do it for me.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy’ by Anne Sebba

2021, 250 p. plus notes

I must confess to sometimes confusing Ethel Rosenberg and Evdokia Petrov. After all, both were accused of being Russian spies, both came to public attention in the 1950s, and both were photographed being escorted under the supervision (and in Petrov’s case – the coercion) of men in images that seemed to exemplify the Cold War.

Edvokia Petrov being ‘escorted’ across the tarmac at Mascot Airport Sydney. Source: Wikimedia

But of course, they are very different women. Edvokia Petrov was Russian and her husband worked at the Soviet embassy in Canberra, and the Petrov’s exposure exacerbated Australian fears of infiltration by “foreigners”. Ethel Rosenberg was born and raised American, as was her husband and, as evidenced by the subtitling of this book for the American audience, this was “An American Tragedy” just as much as it was “A Cold War Tragedy” for Australian readers. And of course, Edvokia Petrov and her husband went on to live in obscurity in suburban Melbourne under assumed names until their deaths in 2002 and 1991 respectively, while Ethel Rosenburg and her husband Julius were executed on Friday 19 June 1953, as we learn in the opening pages of this book.

Just as in Australia we know of “The Petrovs”, in America they were known as “The Rosenbergs”. In this book, however, Anne Sebba consciously focuses on Ethel. As she says in the introduction:

In the past it has suited those who wanted to prove Julius’ guilt to refer always to ‘the Rosenbergs’; Ethel was used as a pawn in the hope that the threat to her would elicit a confession from him…Part of my task in the pages that follow is to extrapolate Ethel, to see her as an individual, perhaps a victim of her times as much as of an implacable government which found itself inert, like a cumbersome juggernaut caught at an intersection, seeing the ongoing traffic but unable to turn itself around.

p.10

Thus the book deliberately focuses on the womanly roles Ethel played during her short, 37 year life: mother, sister, wife and daughter. The initial third of the book, which focusses on her childhood and adolescence could have been written about any number of Jewish, Lower East Side families in New York. Her father, Barney Greenglass was a sewing-machine repair man, catering to the Jewish immigrants who poured into their neighbourhood with tailoring skills and little else, and they lived in a tenement building behind the Greenglass Machine Shop. Ethel was a bright girl who attended Seward Park High School in a ‘rapid advancement’ class, but her love was the stage and singing. To help the family finances, she left school in 1931 to take a secretarial course, which took her to the National New York Packing and Shipping Company, where she became involved with the Shipping Clerks’ Union, and led a picket line during a strike at the Company. Her involvement with the union and friendships with theatre friends working under the Works Progress Administration introduced her to the ideas of Soviet Communism, which at the time seemed miraculous to ‘progressives’. It was while waiting for her turn to perform at a benefit held by the International Seamen’s Union, that the 21 year old Ethel met an 18 year old engineering student, Julius Rosenberg. He had grown up on the Lower East Side too, and they lived around the corner from the Greenglasses in an apartment in Lavanburg Homes, a model affordable housing cooperative. He studied electrical engineering at New York City College in Harlem, sometimes dubbed the poor man’s Harvard. There he made many close friends, mostly Jewish and all left-wing. In the early years of their marriage, neither hid their passion for Communism, which was not illegal at the time. After the war, they moved into an apartment in Knickerbocker Village, a massive 1600-apartment federal housing project on the Lower East Side.

There they had their first son, Michael, in 1943. Michael seems to have been a difficult child who would no doubt receive some sort of diagnosis today, and Ethel exhausted herself following various child-rearing strategies. Their second son Robbie was born in 1947, and was an easier child. Her motherhood, in Sebba’s depiction of her life, places her firmly in the domestic realm, whatever her husband might have been involved in. Further, it was Ethel’s status as ‘mother’ that made even Edgar J. Hoover hesitant to execute her, conscious of how that would play out in the press internationally. This didn’t constrain the authorities from acts of deliberate cruelty in terms of her sons, removing them from foster placements in which they were happy and putting them into an orphanage. Visits from her children were allowed, but one senses that even these were less for Ethel or her sons’ benefit than as a way of leveraging emotional power over her, to encourage her to confess. Her sons’ eventual adoption by Anne and Abel Meeropol (who wrote the lyrics to Billie Holliday’s ‘Strange Fruit’), despite the State of New York’s determination to institutionalize the boys, was perhaps the only bitter-sweet outcome of this grubby emotional state blackmail.

Apart from her husband Julius’ activities, it was her status as sister and daughter that most damagingly implicated her as a spy. She had a very strained relationship with her mother Tessie, who always favoured her son David, the youngest child in Ethel’s family. It was David, along with his wife Ruth, who testified against Ethel and Julius, directly accusing them of encouraging David to spy, and testifying that Ethel herself had typed information for their Soviet handler. The Greenglass family swung their support behind David and Ruth, who were also charged but became prosecution witnesses under pressure from Roy Cohn (Trump’s former lawyer). Ethel’s mother Tessie angrily urged Ethel to divorce Julius and co-operate with the government, as David and Ruth had done. Her brother Bernie offered lukewarm support, but her older half-brother Sam adopted his mother Tessie’s stance.

Much was made of Ethel’s ‘ordinariness’, both in her defence and as a warning of how insidious the ‘Soviet menace’ could be. She was a plain woman, with a round face, and she wore unflattering clothes. She rarely smiled, and seemed sullen. Just as Lindy Chamberlain was to find when she faced court over the disappearance of her daughter Azaria at Uluru, public judgements often fasten onto demeanour and clothes, particularly for women.

So unprepossessing was she that the vehemence of their love story, displayed through their correspondence after their arrests, comes as rather a surprise. The letters are not unproblematic in that Julius recognized the importance of saving the letters he and Ethel were exchanging in case they were useful in attracting public sympathy for their appeal, and indeed some of the letters were published by the National Guardian, a radical left-wing but non-Communist newspaper. As a result, the letters from May 1951 seem more self-conscious with regular crossing-outs and corrections (p.176). Nonetheless, their love and yearning for each other seemed, if anything, to increase. On the trips to court, the other prisoners shifted around in the back of the prison van, so that Ethel and Julius could hold hands through the wire separating male and female prisoners, and Ethel wrote to Julius of her “implacable hunger” for “l’amour”. Running alongside this was her increasing infatuation with her psychotherapist Dr Saul Miller, whom she had originally consulted when struggling with parenting her son Michael. Her lawyer had initially prevented Ethel’s access to Dr Miller while in jail, fearing that it would be used by the prosecution lawyers against her. Eventually Dr Miller was able to visit her again, and if transference of feeling from husband to psychotherapist occurred, it is easy to understand.

She remained unshakeable in her loyalty to her husband. It well may have been misplaced. Intercepted cables with Russia through Project Verona between 1943 and 1950 (only declassified and published in 1995) named Julius, David and Ruth and gave them code names. However, Ethel had no code name, and was mentioned only once, and then by her given name. This one reference indicated that she was “sufficiently well developed politically” and that she knew about her husband’s work. However,

In view of delicate health does not work. Is characterized positively and as a devoted person.

cited on p 216

Ethel was not going to disavow her husband, but if Julian was guilty, he could have saved Ethel. He didn’t. Her sons believed that Ethel would not have been able to live with herself had she repudiated her marriage or betrayed her friends. Sebba believes that Julius was naive, optimistic and sincerely believed that he was not guilty of treason. He did not know about the Project Verona intercepts, and as a result thought that there was no good direct evidence against him. The increasing public campaign against their execution, which spread around the world, also encouraged him to maintain their innocence. Sebba concludes that

…ultimately Ethel saw her death as inevitable. She could not confess to something which she had not done and so, in a topsy-turvy world where logic and rationalism no longer played a role, she believed she was dying for truth and justice and for her personal legacy…. In the end her story is, for me, not about a narrow definition of what is meant by innocence or guilt. It is about the multiple meanings of betrayal.

p. 250

This biography certainly succeeds in its aim in “extrapolating” Anne beyond the designation of ‘the Rosenbergs’ (I’m not sure that ‘extrapolating’ is quite the right verb). It is well written, with a judicious use of narrative story-telling techniques balanced against analysis and use of source materials. The book ends with an interesting discussion of the cultural uses to which ‘the Rosenbergs’ have been put, and traces through to their end the biographies of the main characters who acted both for and against them. We still might not be sure of Ethel’s culpability, although Sebba gives any ex post-facto certainty a good shake, but one thing we do know. Right to the end, the state hoped that by executing Julius first, Ethel might recant. But Ethel Rosenberg died, maintaining her innocence to the end.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Love Stories’ by Trent Dalton

2021, 333 p.

So there’s a thought. A published author sets himself up on a Brisbane city street with a folding table and a blue Olivetti typewriter, with a sign reading ‘Sentimental Writer Collecting Love Stories’ and waits for people to come and talk to him. And talk to him they do – 42 of them – and he writes their love stories up for them, and for us. Most of them are only about three pages in length, although some are longer, and one extends over two parts widely separated in the book.

I must confess that I can barely remember any of them afterwards. These are not great epics: they are often everyday and quotidian, and there are as many love stories that break up as there are love stories that last a lifetime. You get the sense- and perhaps this is Dalton’s intention- that nearly everyone has a love story of some description in them, no matter how tarnished it may seem from the outside.

I must be about the only person in the world who has not read Boy Swallows Universe and so I didn’t come to this book with a reservoir of affection and goodwill towards the author earned through enjoying an earlier novel. The book could have been cut in half: it could just as easily have been extended to double its length. There is no rhythm or build up in the argument, instead it is just the addition of one story after another after another, as if rolling the paper out of the typewriter and adding it to the pile. For me, it felt a bit like a newspaper column, and I found myself wondering if it were, whether I would seek out the column each day. I suspect not. I think that the earnestness and wide-eyed wonder would pall after a while.

One fact (as distinct from a story) did stay with me, though : that the average hug is less than 3 seconds. Coming from a family of huggers, I would like to think that our hugs last longer than that.

My rating: 6.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘The Last Woman in the World’ by Inga Simpson

2021, 341 p

It seemed particularly fitting that I should finish reading this book on a weekend when anti-vaxxers, anti-mandate anti-government protesters and so-called ‘sovereign citizens’ should be gathering in Canberra, with a thicket of red Australian flags and placards reflecting their multiple priorities. The Last Woman in the World ends up in a Canberra, ringed by fire, threatened by both right-wing militias and shadow-like creatures that feed on fear, wiping out most of the population and civic society.

Rachel has been living off-grid in the New South Wales bush, working as a glass-blower and in contact with only her sister, Monique, and a local woman, Mia, who brings her food and supplies and ferries Rachel’s glass creations to various markets. Her solitude is shattered by a woman hammering on her door, imploring to be let in with her sick baby. Wary and resentful, Rachel opens the door to Hannah. Hannah tells of screaming people dying suddenly, engulfed by dark shadows that both women refer to as ‘them’, their faces contorted with terror. Death is everywhere, but as Hannah’s baby Isaiah becomes sicker and sicker, both women decide to seek out Rachel’s sister Monique, a G.P. in Canberra. They drive into the smoke-wreathed bush, as bushfires encircle Canberra, only to find corpses everywhere and the lurking presence of ‘them’.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Rachel has suffered from mental illness after a traumatized childhood and a past assault, and it’s not really clear whether ‘they’ are real or hallucinations. The descriptions of driving through fire are evocative and terrifying, but I had the feeling as if they belonged in a book other than this one – perhaps another book that Simpson wants to write one day- particularly when I learned that the writer herself had had to evacuate twice because of fire while writing the book. It marks the advent of novels, sure to continue over the next decades, when the years of pandemic of the early 2020s are background facts. The tension is ratcheted up by not really knowing who is friend or foe, although this is clearer by the end. Those shadowy figures – them– remain ambiguous and other, not ever fully realised or explained. The explanation for why some people seem to be immune to the influence of them strains credulity a bit and the ending was perhaps a bit too neat for my liking.

However, it was good to read a pursuit story like this where the protagonists were women. While disturbing, it is not as nihilistic as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (and I’m glad that it’s not), and I enjoyed reading Canberra as a familiar, if eerily quiet, setting. But I’m still bemused by the title, which is not even accurate. Or did I miss something?

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.