Category Archives: Six Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation: from the Snow Child to….

As usual, I haven’t read the starting book that Kate has chosen for the Six Degrees of Separation at her Books Are My Favourite and Best blog. This meme involves Kate choosing the starting book (in this case The Snow Child by Eowin Ivey) and then you associating book titles by whatever obscure link you want: by title, time read, theme….whatever.

I haven’t read The Snow Child but I have read Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country. In it, a disillusioned and cynical writer returns to a hot spring resort in the off-season, where he meets a geisha. She falls in love with him but he never reciprocates: instead he observes her and her decline quite dispassionately. The setting is very evocative with huge snow drifts making the resort seem quite isolated and her frenetic workload,with several parties in one night, contrasts with his ennui and rootlessness.

Speaking of snow, there’s also Palden Gyatso’s Fire Under the Snow but the two books are very different. This is the book that aroused my commitment to Amnesty International, as it tells the story of a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned for 33 years by the Chinese authorities. As the son of a landowner, he was particularly targeted and moved from prison to prison, where he was tortured and subjected to many beatings by his cell-mates as a form of institutionalized humiliation. If anything, he became even more radical during his second period of imprisonment and when he was finally released, he became aware of the strength of resistance within Tibet generally. It is gently told, without rancour, and it made me realize the importance for political prisoners to know that people ‘outside’ are aware of their plight and that they will not die without trace.

Still more snow and another Japanese writer. Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow is the first in his Sea of Fertility tetraology. A controversial right wing figure, the author ended up committing suicide after an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1970. I don’t think I knew that when I started reading the book. Set in 1912, the main character Kiyoaki Matsugae’s family is part of the provincial elite which needs to tie itself in with the aristocracy, and as such his family encourages him to develop his gentility through the neighbours, the Ayakuras, who have adopted Western Ways. Kiyoaki is at first dismissive of the flirtations of Satoko, but when she becomes engaged to an Imperial Price, he becomes infatuated and embarks on an affair with her.

Leaving the snow behind, let’s launch into another season -in this case, autumn- with Gabriel Garciá Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch. Actually, I didn’t really enjoy this book, and I found it very difficult to read, made even worse because my e-reader kept crashing as I bought it as part of an omnibus edition of GGM’s works. The story is about an unnamed dictator in an unnamed Caribbean island, who just does not die. Well – he does, ostensibly, in the first chapter where he engages a double to deflect any assassination attempts, and the double dies as a result. But in the succeeding chapters, his death is foreshadowed, but he just doesn’t die. In a decrepit palace that is invaded with creepy-crawlies during the night, the Patriarch wanders from room to room, locking up the house, playing dominoes with other old dictators that he has imprisoned, raping the young women in the women’s quarters until he finally falls asleep on the floor, his arms cradling his head, only to wake up again the next morning and do it all again. You can read my bad-tempered review here.

There’s definitely a killing in Kate Holden’s The Winter Road and the victim certainly does die. This non-fiction book tells the story of the murder of Glen Turner, a ranger employed by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage by Ian Turnbull, a landholder at Croppa Creek who felt that his rights were being infringed by government regulations against landclearing. The author 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. It’s excellent. Read my review here

Now, I must say that the UK is not the first place that I think of when I say the word “heatwave”, although as recent summers have shown us, they are becoming more common that we could ever have imagined. Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave is set against the 1976 heatwave that roasted London with sixteen consecutive days over 30 degrees. English houses are not built for heat, and water restrictions were imposed. On a hot July morning in 1976, recently retired Robert Riordan gets up from the breakfast table and announces that he’ll pop out to get the newspaper. He doesn’t come back. His wife of 40 years, Gretta waits a little while, then calls her children. All three children come home to help find their father, trailing their disappointments, anxieties, tensions and resentments behind them. Just as oppressive as the heat was the venom of their family arguments and the burden of secrets and pain that family brings. (My review here

So my six degrees has crunched around in the snow before launching into a sequence of books related to the different seasons of the year. I’ve been to Japan, Tibet, the Caribbean, outback NSW and London. All without leaving my desk.

Six degrees of separation: from The Naked Chef to….

Good grief- what am I going to do with Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef as the starting book? I don’t even really like cook books much. The Six Degrees of Separation meme on the first Saturday of each month is hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, starting with the book that Kate has selected – in this case, The Naked Chef . You then associate it with six other books you have read, making the links between titles in any way you like.

But The Naked Chef? Perhaps all those years of Sunday School paid off because the only thing that I could think of was from the Bible. (Not a book that I’m in the habit of quoting).

For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.

Matthew 25: 35-36

Okay- “naked and you clothed Me”. The Women in Black by Madeleine St John is set in the Ladies Cocktail Dress department of F.G. Goode in Sydney- a thinly disguised David Jones.  The main character is Leslie, who has adopted the more sophisticated name ‘Lisa’, and she works as a young casual alongside the older permanent women as one of the “women in black”, changing from their street clothes into the black uniform of F. G. Goode before starting work. She just works the one Christmas/New Year period, then she moves on. I think that St John has captured the early 1960s well here: the wariness and yet curiosity about ‘New Australians’ who seem cultured and exotic with their strange food, coffee and wine; the stifling embarrassment about sexuality even among married couples, and the world of promise opening up with universities that is stretching the expectations of women for their lives. It is an intellectual coming-of-age book too, in a way, as Lisa finds herself feeling embarrassed about her home-made clothes and dipping her toes into adult social life. (My review here).

“I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat”. I’ve read several books about famine, but one that stays with me is Hungry: The Great Irish Famine. A History in Four Lives by Enda Delaney. The four lives that Enda Delaney has chosen, because of the limitation of the sources, are not the victims. Instead, they were at the other end of the famine. There is John MacHale, the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, who at first saw the famine as God’s punishment on his flock for their sins. Over time, he became increasingly critical of the British Government response. There is the radical nationalist John Mitchel, a leading member of the Young Ireland and Irish Confederation “movements, who ended up in Van Diemen’s Land for his seditious activities. There is Charles Trevelyn, the assistant secretary to the Treasury, who has often been depicted as the Main Villain because of the policies implemented by the British Government. Finally, there is Elisabeth Smith, the Scottish-born wife of a Wicklow landlord, whose sympathies for the Irish peasantry became increasingly rigid. The power of this book is seeing these politics of ideology, and the politics of resistance being expressed in the words of individuals, and watching their positions harden as the crisis continued. If you’re looking for ‘getting to know’ these individuals at an emotional or moral level, this is not the book for you. The book does work, however, at the level of personalizing the political. (My review here)

“I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink.” They were thirsty on the Western Australian goldfields, and C.Y. O’Connor’s ill-fated project was to bring water from Mundarring Dam to Kalgoorlie. Robert Drewe’s book, The Drowner fictionalizes this endeavour, with his main character William Dance employed as a water engineer on O’Connor’s scheme. I enjoyed the book, but found it very disjointed, and I wondered how someone who did not know about O’Connor would make sense of it. No review- it was before I started blogging.

“I was a stranger and you took Me in”. Well, there’s a stranger in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, but I don’t think it’s the sort of stranger Jesus might have been thinking about. Instead, it’s a ghost. It is a gentle, slow tale told by the local doctor, Dr Faraday, who becomes enmeshed in the distress of the local gentry Ayres family, whose house harbours a ghost. Their home, Hundreds Hall is falling into disrepair with tangled gardens, vermin, leaking roofs and windows and the family- the vague, aristocratic Mrs Ayres, her son Roderick who has returned from the war with a leg injury and ‘nerves’, and the practical, plain daughter Caroline- cling futilely to a vanishing world of servants, farm labourers and estates. (My review here).

“I was sick and you looked after Me”. In Helen Garner’s brutally honest The Spare Room Helen offers to look after her friend Nicola who is coming to Melbourne to seek an alternative therapy for advanced cancer. Nicola’s death is not really the core of this story: instead the drama of the book is Helen’s rage and inadequacy in the face the demands of friendship, and her frustration at her friend’s relentless faith in a “cure” that Helen feels is quackery. (My review here).

“I was in prison and you visited Me”. Well, not visited but certainly wrote letters. The full title of this book is Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag. In this book historian Orlando Figes brings his deep knowledge of Russian history and society to contextualize the archive of almost 1300 letters that were written between Lev Mischenko and his partner Svetlana Ivanova while he was imprisoned in the gulag, working in the wood-combine generator that powered the timber works in the frozen forests at Pechora Labour camp. But the real, real strength of this book is Lev and Sveta’s story, and the beautiful, nuanced, tender letters that they shared over this time. They met at university and went out together for three years. When war was declared, Lev rushed to enlist but was soon taken captive by the Germans. He was able to speak German, and as a prisoner-of-war, used his linguistic skills to translate camp orders. When the prisoner-of-war camp was liberated, he was arrested almost immediately and falsely accused as a ‘fascist collaborator’. The trial was a farce, he was tricked into a confession, and sentenced to ten years at Pechora. For the first few years, he struggled silently to survive in the cold and deprivation. It was only then that he dared to write to an aunt and asked, almost in passing, whether Svetlana and her family had survived the war. Svetlana, who had thought that he was missing in action, wrote immediately on learning that he was still alive. And so the correspondence began. My review here.

Well- I’ve travelled quite a distance from Jamie Oliver. Who would have thought?

Six degrees of separation: from ‘Notes on a Scandal’ to…

For the first time in ages, I have actually read the starting book in the Six Degrees of Separation meme. To see more about this meme, check out Kate’s Books Are My Favourite and Best but, in summary, she thinks of the starting book and then you think of six other titles related in some way- no matter how tangential- to the starting book.

The starting book this month is Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. Actually, I think that the version I read was under its alternative title What Was She Thinking, but I’ll go with Notes on a Scandal because that was the name for the film based on the book. Besides, ‘scandal’ takes you to more places…

First stop is Kirsten McKenzie’s A Swindler’s Progress. This book looks at the putative Viscount Lascelles – in reality, the implausibly but actually named John Dow- a convict who served out his time in Van Diemen’s land after being transported for swindling using yet another false identity. On the expiry of his sentence, he traversed the NSW interior, claiming that he had been commissioned by the Secretary of State to inquire into the proper treatment of assigned convicts. He claimed that he was the eldest son of the second Earl of Harewood- a claim haughtily denied by the Earl back in England whose eldest son, in fact had been disinherited after making a series of disastrous liaisons. The book emphasizes the ease by which people could slip into new identities by travelling to various parts of the empire. She is a master storyteller who uses the human to enliven the theoretical, and the insights of the scholar enrich her narrative of lives lived with contingency, imperfection and incomplete endings. (see my review here)

In their anxiety about ‘respectability’, colonies could be even more stifling than Mother England. A Life of Propriety by Katherine M.J. McKenna is an academic history of Anna Murray Powell, one of the matriarchs of Upper Canada society in the late 18th century. I very much doubt that you’ll be able to find this book anywhere. She was the wife of Chief Justice William Dummer Powell, of the Kings Bench Upper Canada. It has stuck in my memory because her daughter became very publicly infatuated with John Beverley Robinson, the future attorney-general, much to the mortification of her family. It showed that parent/child (and particularly mother/daughter) relationships could be just as fraught two hundred years ago. Although the expectations and language of her parents in their treatment of their daughter might not sit well with us today, the experience of parenting, loving, and losing transcends these differences. (My review here)

Another real-life story that reads like fiction is Wendy Moore’s Wedlock. If you’ve seen the movie ‘Barry Lyndon’ or read the book, you will have come across this story which Thackeray based on the real life kidnapping of Mary Eleanor Bowes-Lyon, the wealthiest heiress in England. If that name sounds familiar, there is a family link with the Queen Mother. This is rattling good narrative history, all the better for being a true story. (My review here)

The heiress kidnapping has become a bit of a narrative trope, but I don’t think that anyone could trump Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. It’s very long but absolutely gripping. It is a type of epistolary novel, with various characters handing the narrative on to the next character- a very modern technique for a book written in 1859-60. It has been described as a melodrama, but I prefer to think of it as a thriller, with mounting suspense and a sense of dread, ratcheted-up as the story proceeds. There’s nothing hard-boiled about it at all: instead, it is intricate, verbose, lush, formal – and a damned good read. Even at over 600 pages. (See my review here)

Wilkie Collins was a good friend of Charles Dickens, who had scandals of his own. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Tiernan and Charles Dickens is written by one of my favourite literary biographers, Claire Tomalin. Operating with rather sparse sources, she divides her book into three sections: first, Nelly Tiernan’s childhood and upbringing as part of a theatrical family; second, her hidden affair with Charles Dickens; and finally, her re-creation and rehabilitation of herself as a respectable school-teacher’s wife. Tomalin has written this biography with the bones showing – as she does with all her biographies- but in this case, the paucity of sources makes it hard to breathe life into this shadowy figure.

Writers seem to have made rather a habit of treating their wives badly, and biographers often struggle to bring their subjects out from the notoriety of their husbands. With Franny Moyle’s Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde, she deals with the most notorious of husbands- Oscar Wilde- and his relationship with his wife Constance. When she married Oscar, they formed what we would now call a celebrity couple, noted for their radical aesthetic tastes and pre-Raphaelite sensibilities. Constance was a striking beauty. She too wrote stories, and she was well-known for her adherence to the principles of the bohemian Rational Dress Society. Moyle’s sympathies are very much with Constance, who despite changing her own and her children’s surname to “Holland” continued to love Oscar after his conviction, visited him in jail, and was equivocal about divorcing him although she gained a judicial separation from him eventually. (My review here)

So, here we are at the end. Even though Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal is set in the present day, I see to have been wading around in the 18th and 19th centuries (my favourite stamping ground, I must confess). And I’m always attracted to a scandal….

Six degrees of separation: from Flame Trees of Thika to…

It’s the first Saturday of the month, and so it’s Six Degrees of Separation Day. Kate, who hosts this meme at her blog Books Are My Favourite and Best has taken a different approach this month. Instead of her choosing the book, this month you start off with the book that you finished with last time and then link six other books that you associate together in some way.

Well, in August my last book in the chain was Elspeth Huxley’s memoir The Flame Trees of Thika. I read it a long time ago, and intended re-reading it on one of my several trips to Kenya to see my son, who was living in Nairobi at the time. So, my Six Degrees this month all revolve around Africa in one way or another.

David Anderson’s History of the Hanged (2005) is a history of the Mau-Mau Rebellion which took place in Kenya between 1952 and 1960. He starts by contextualizing the rebellion in terms of colonization and de-colonization, then shifts to a more individual approach through his use of court reports, both from the Supreme Court and the Special Emergency Assize Courts. (My review here)

Another more recent troubled period in Kenya’s history occurred after the 2007 elections. The Honey Guide (2013) is set at that time. It’s actually a detective story, featuring Mollel, a Massai policeman amongst a police force notorious for its corruption made up of Kikuyus and Luos who clashed during this post-election violence. Mollel’s wife had died several years earlier in the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi, leaving him to bring up their son. I’m not usually a fan of detective fiction, but I loved the real-life setting of this book.

Let’s move away from violence in Kenya for a bit with Kirsten Drysdale’s memoir I Built No Schools in Kenya (2019). You may know her from ‘The Hungry Beast’ or ‘The Checkout’ on the ABC – come to think of it, I haven’t seen her for a while. In 2010, between shows, she shifted to Kenya for a year to care for an old man with dementia and became caught up in the family tensions. I found it laugh-out-loud funny at times, and I loved her descriptions of Nairobi. (My review here)

How about something going out of Africa (other than Karen Blixen)? Zafara by Michael Allin is the story of the giraffe donated to the King of France Charles X by Muhammed Ali, the Pasha of Egypt in the mid-1820s. In this book he traces Zafara’s journey from her original capture in Sudan, across to Khartoum strapped onto the back of a camel (I’m finding it quite hard to imagine this), then down (up?) the Nile to Alexandria, where she embarked a ship to Marseilles. On arrival at Marseilles, it was decided that after a winter lay-over, she would walk the 900 km to Paris. Her trip, which took 41 days, excited keen interest in the crowds that greeted her at each stop and indeed, the whole of France was convulsed with ‘giraffe-mania’. He tells the history of the fascination with ‘exotic’ animals, the effect of the Enlightenment and the fascination with Egyptology. It’s a real work of love. (My review here).

Or lets go the other way, into Africa. That’s where four young girls, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth-May are taken by their rabidly evangelical father in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Told alternately by each of the four girls and their mother, it captures well the grip of mania as their father is oblivious to the irrelevance of his message, and the effect on his family as they live as outsiders in a Congo village in the jungle.

The Shadow King (2019) by Maaza Mengiste takes us to another African country – Ethiopia- during the Italian/Ethiopian war in 1935- something that I knew absolutely nothing about. There’s crazed violence in this book too, as Carlo Fucelli, the leader of those Italian troops, indulges in sadism, forcing a Jewish Italian photographer amongst his troops to photograph the atrocities that he commits. Meanwhile, The ‘Shadow King’ of the title is a peasant with an uncanny likeness to the now-exiled Emperor Haile Selassie. While Selassie frets in Bath UK, his ‘shadow’ appears, almost like a vision, before the Ethiopian troops to inspire them. This book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020 and was beaten (rather unjustly, I feel) by Shuggie Bain. (My review here).

So there we go – all in Africa – but moving from Kenya to Egypt, Congo and ending up in Ethiopia.

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Book of Form and Emptiness’ to…

First Saturday of the month (again), so it’s Six Degrees of Separation where Kate at BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest chooses a starting book title, then you link to six other books that are associated in your mind somehow. As usual, I haven’t read the starting book, which is Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness which apparently won the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of it.

But I did read Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. I read it in 2000, before I started this blog, but I must have enjoyed it because I gave it a 9/10. It was about a documentary maker engaged to present a series of documentaries about the health-giving benefits of American beef. As she gradually becomes aware of the chemicals and antibiotics used in the beef industry, her documentaries become increasingly subversive.

If the thought of all these chemicals in your steak and the cruelty of the livestock industry turns you off, you could eat vegetables instead- peas anyone? The Pea Pickers by Eve Langley, written in 1942, has two sisters dressing up as men to join itinerant farm-workers down in Gippsland.

Don Watson takes us down to Gippsland, too, in his book Caledonia Australis (1984). It is the history of the clash between Scots Highlanders who emigrated to Port Phillip, and the Kurnai people of Gippsland. Even though there were similarities between the two groups (clan-based, with land as the basis of their identity, history and legend passed through song and dance, with a co-existent supernatural and natural world), the Highlanders dispossessed the Kurnai, just as they had been dispossessed themselves back in Scotland (review here)

Shuggie Bain grew up in Scotland too, but it was the grey Glasgow of post-Thatcher Britain. His unhappiness sprang not just from the economic gloom that engulfed Scotland, but also his love and powerlessness towards his alcohol-addicted mother (review here).

There was alcohol- lots of it- and deprivation in Jimmy Barnes’ Working Class Boy, which also started in Glasgow. Like Shuggie, he escaped, but ended up in Elizabeth in South Australia and went on to be one of Australia’s biggest rock stars in Cold Chisel, and even more so as a solo performer (especially during lockdown with his home-made videos in his fantastic house, with all the family singing along).

One of Cold Chisel’s famous songs (and one of my favourites) is Flame Trees, which evokes Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika, her memoir of growing up in British East Africa before the outbreak of WWI. I must re-read it one of these days, now that I have visited Kenya.

So, maybe I didn’t read The Book of Form and Emptiness, but I’ve been to North America, Gippsland, Glasgow and Kenya and I’ve travelled around in the 1840s, 1910s, 1940s, 1960s and 1980s. Not bad.

Six degrees of separation: from ‘Wintering’ to…

It’s first Saturday of the month (already!) and so it’s time for the Six Degrees of Separation meme, hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest. The idea is that she chooses the starting book, and then off you go on a riff of your own choosing, linking to six other books for whatever reason you decide.

This month the starting book is ‘Wintering’ by Katherine May which, although published in 2020, I haven’t even heard of. Nonetheless, where is it going to take me?

Naturally enough, if one thinks of ‘winter’, the mind leaps immediately to ‘summer’. I’ll go even further, thinking of all four of the seasons in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet. Ali Smith wrote and released each book in successive years, starting with Autumn, and they were written in real time (i.e. each set in the year in which it was written). I really wanted to enjoy this quartet, but I found myself a bit disappointed in it. You can read my review of Summer, the final book in the quartet here.

Have I read any other quartets? I don’t think I have. If fact, the only quartet I can think of is Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, published between 1957 and 1960. I haven’t read it/them but am tempted to do so, especially after the soft Saturday night viewing of ‘The Durrells’ where Josh O’ Connor plays Lawrence Durrell- (and hasn’t he done well?) Even though he seems a rather pretentious prat in ‘The Durrells’, his writing has survived his younger brother’s skewering of him.

But I have read Naguib Mafouz’s Cairo Trilogy, which was written just a little earlier than Durrell’s books (i.e. 1956, 1957), but not translated into English until the 1990s. I really loved its perspective on traditional Egyptian life and the repercussions of the political upheaval in Egypt in 1919.

And thinking of Cairo, let’s jump to 1980s Melbourne with Chris Womersley’s Cairo, which refers not to the Egyptian city, but to the Cairo Flats that still stand opposite the Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne. We had a friend who lived there! (See my review here) I see that Womersley has recently released a followup, The Diplomat, which follows on from the very Melbourne story of the theft of Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ from the National Gallery of Victoria.

Picasso is best known for his painting ‘Guernica’ which brought the Spanish Civil War to world consciousness. It was a war that drew writers and intellectuals from the world over. Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida describes itself as a ‘narrative, not an academic analysis’ of six real-life characters: writer Ernest Hemingway and journalist Martha Gellhorn, war photographer Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and press officers/censors/propagandists Arturo Barea and Isla Kulscar. All six stayed at the once-deluxe Hotel Florida in Madrid. (See my review here).

Another famous literary hotel is the Hotel Metropole in Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. Like the Hotel California of the Eagles’ song, this was a hotel where “you could check in any time you like, but you can never leave”- if you’re Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. As the vast history of twentieth-century Russia unfolds outside the walls of the hotel, he is under a form of house-arrest which means that he cannot leave the hotel and his world becomes encapsulated in the varying fortunes of the people who live and work there. (See my review here).

Well, I seem to have travelled quite some distance – UK, Alexandria, Cairo, Melbourne (!), Madrid and Moscow. Not quite ‘Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times’, eh?

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.

Six degrees of separation: From Our Wives Under the Sea to….

Does having a book on reserve at the library count as having read it? Probably not. So, I must confess to not having read Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield, the starting book for April’s Six Degrees of Separation Meme. A literary association game, Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best chooses the starting book, and participants name six books that spring to mind because of some association- no matter how obscure- with the starting book.

I could instantly think of many books about the sea, but I have chosen to stick to the idea of being under water.

The first book that I thought of is Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts (2012). I have no idea what happened in Armfield’s book, but I have always been attracted to books and films about selkies (I absolutely loved the film The Secret of Roan Inish).

It’s a beautifully told story, spun out over several generations. It is set on remote Rollrock Island, with its village of fisherfolk and small cottages. The chapters are of varying lengths, told in the first person in a curious, lilting accent. Each chapter focuses on a different character and time elapses between generation to generation. One of the longest and most compelling chapters is told by Missakaella, an awkward young woman, shunned by the villagers, drawn to the sea and especially the seals in the bay. They are attracted to her, too, and her mother forces her to wear an apron with crossed strings, that somehow keeps the seals at bay. It is through Missakaella that the age-old meeting between selkie and human is reconsummated. It is a powerful and evocative piece of writing that I found oddly, and breath-holdingly erotic. That’s quite a narrative feat: to not only be lulled into suspending disbelief about the physicality between seal and woman, but to actually stir a response to it as well. But actions have consequences: obsession becomes possession; love becomes loss; something taken can take in return.

See my review here

I’m fascinated by lands under the sea- in particular Doggerland, which existed in the North Sea and English Channel 18,000 years ago, making what we now know as the United Kingdom a contiguous part of Europe. It was not a land ‘bridge’, which suggests a narrow and tentative link between UK and Europe. Instead it was a fertile plain, with its own coastlines and rivers, with humans roaming across it. It was not a route from one place to another, but a territory in its own right. Julia Blackburn’s Time Song (2019) is an environmental history, but it is more:

But it’s also a very human story because of the way she tells it. Her search is narrated almost as a conversational journey, as she meets with this person and that, and as she relates her own reminiscences of places and items she has herself found. Collectors and academics share their enthusiasms with her, and indirectly with us too. There is a lot of science in this book (and her list of acknowledgments at the back of the book demonstrates her debt to academia) but it’s written very much in layman’s terms. Her response to the academic literature is expressed in 18 ‘Time Song’ poems, which intersect the text, each preceded by a black and white drawings by Enrique Brinkmann.

See my review here.

Doggerbank may be well and truly under the sea, but in James Boyce’s Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens (2020) we have man fighting against the encroachment of water in ‘The Fens’ in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Norfold and the Isle of Axholme in Yorkshire. The Fens, he explains, are not a precise location, given that the creeks and waterways that constitute them have always been an ever-changing phenomenon. James Boyce is an Australian historian, so this book seems a bit of a departure for him. But his focus is ‘colonization’, which can occur within a country, as well as overseas.

It is this bi-focal approach to colonization, seeing it as a process wielded in Britain and well as by Britain that is the real strength of this book, prompted by Boyce’s deep engagement with Indigenous history here in Australia. I must confess as an Australian reader, I found myself wishing that I knew more British history and geography. … Boyce is an incisive and economical writer, carefully attuned to landscape and ecology, continuity and change. His book is only small, but it makes an argument about colonization and resistance with its feet planted in two different, widely separated continents.

Read my review here

There’s plenty of water in Northern NSW and Queensland at the moment, and I’ve found myself thinking recently of Margaret Cook’s A River with a City Problem: A History of Brisbane Floods (2019). She takes as her focus the 2011 floods which devastated the homes and businesses along the Brisbane River, right into the CBC.

This book tells the story of the three major floods – 1893, 1974 and 2011 – from ecological, geographical and human perspectives. More importantly, though, it looks at the failure of policy as successive governments of both persuasions lacked the courage to say ‘enough!’ and prevent development on the floodplain. In the aftermath of a crisis, there’s a proud defiance in claiming that” we will rebuild” but often it defeats good sense.

See my review here

Fish live under the sea. And people bob around in boats and stand on the river banks trying to catch them. Historian Anna Clark takes a bit of a detour here from her interest in the historiography and teaching of Australian history to tell the history of fishing in Australia in The Catch: The Story of Fishing in Australia (2017). She shares her own love of fishing not just in the “we” language that Clark deploys, but also in the carefully crafted ‘fisher’s-eye’ paragraphs that commence each chapter.

Its copious and beautiful illustrations mark it out as a coffee-table book, but the text ranges beyond the ‘whoa! look at that!’ response to a photograph of a big fish. Its author, Anna Clark, is well known in academic circles for her work on public history and history teaching and she brings to the book an awareness of sources and a keen sense of finding history in the everyday. Most importantly, she brings her own love of fishing to the text, and I think that this is what fishers will respond most to in this book.

See my review here

Natural resources are under the sea as well. And as Bernard Collaery has found to his chagrin in Oil Under Troubled Water: Australia’s Timor Sea Intrigue (2020), governments are fiercely protective of the negotiations that govern their use by competing nations. Bernard Collaery is a former Attorney-General of the Australian Capital Territory and worked for many years as legal counsel to the government of East Timor. In May 2018 he was charged by the Australian Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions with conspiracy to breach the Intelligence Services Act of 2001, introduced in the wake of September 11. He, and Witness K, a former senior ASIS agent, have been effectively gagged over a claim that ASIS had bugged the offices of the East Timorese team during negotiations over Timor Sea oil. Actually, even though I am very interested in the legal ramifications of Collaery’s silencing, and the sorry tale of Australia’s treatment of East Timor in these negotiations, I found the book quite difficult to read.

This, then, is a history of Australia’s dealings with East Timor and Indonesia over the oil resources- and more importantly, the helium reserves- in the Timor Sea. It moves chronologically, but it is a lawyer’s argument rather than a historian’s….I did manage to finish this book, but I found it very hard to read. Inexplicably, there is no map until page 362 and in a book that bristles with acronyms, there is no glossary. It is meticulous, with every fact noted, but it groans under the weight of so much detail. My gut feeling all those years ago was that Australia was acting like a bully, and this book only confirmed it further.

Read my review here

Well, with the exception of the Lanagan book, I’ve drawn on non-fiction books in this Six Degrees with a heavy dose of history.

Six degrees of separation: from The End of the Affair to…

It’s the first Saturday of March, so it’s Six Degrees of Separation day. This meme, hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest involves mental association of six book titles from the starting book that Kate provides each month. It might be on the basis of the title alone, or the themes that it deals with, or author, or location or…. anything that springs to mind. This month’s starting book is Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Yet another book I haven’t read. So, I’ve gone by title, focussing on the word ‘End’, with no mental gymnastics or creative insight. What a gloomy road I have been taken down!

I started with fiction first. Naguib Mafouz’s The Beginning and the End is a stand alone novel from 1949, and precedes his better-known Cairo Trilogy. I read it before I started blogging but here is what I wrote about it in my reading journal at the time. I gave it a score of 7/10.

Set in Egypt, a family is plunged into penury when the father dies. The eldest brother continues his life of idleness and becomes involved with criminals. Hussein sacrifices his own hopes to study to put his younger brother through army college. The youngest brother, selfish to the last, encourages his sister, disgraced when caught in a brothel, to suicide, then follows her. Reminiscent of Zola or Hardy in its lurching from one disaster to the next, but in its values quite Arabic.

From 1930s Cairo to the American Civil War, the next book I thought of was Irish writer Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End (2017) In my review, I wrote:

In reading this book, there were flashes of Cold Mountain and unexpected echoes of Blood Meridian. There is certainly violence, but somehow it is dream-like and disconnected. The narrative voice in this book, speaking in the present tense throughout, in my head sounded to be a completely American accent, without even a trace of Irishness. It is, essentially, a love story, with beautiful descriptions of landscape and climate. I don’t often read a book with a film in mind, but I expect to see this on the screen one day, as it has a very filmic, epic quality. (See my review here)

Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (2011)gives us just what the title suggests -a vague uneasiness about the ending. The main character, Tony, who writes in the first person in the first section of the book, receives a letter which causes him to go back to revisit his memories from the past, challenging his sense of life-narrative. Here’s what I wrote in my review

The title of the book is The Sense of an Ending, and it’s truly only a ‘sense’ that you are left with.  Tony, too, thinks that he has found an ending to his story, but “there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

I thought that I had reached the end of the book, and had my own certainty that I’d finished with the story.  In planning to write this post, I looked at a few other reviews in newspapers and blogs- only to find that perhaps I hadn’t finished it at all.  Read this review that explains the ending, then keep on going through the comments -ye Gods, 423 of them!- and the real cleverness of the book reveals itself.  It has sent me back to the start again! (See my review here)

My fiction titles exhausted, I turned to non-fiction . My word, historians and political commentators are very fond of the word “end”, finding “ends” to everything. Most of these I read before starting blogging, so either there are fewer books with “end” in the title now (it does seem rather presumptuous to declare the end of anything, really, given that we don’t know what is ahead of us) or I tired of reading them.

A book from 1992 (and hence pre 9/11) is The End of the Twentieth Century and the end of the Modern Age written by one of my favourite historians John Lukacs. Given the current events in Europe right now, it’s interesting to look at his interpretation written from the 1990s. Again, I read this pre-blog, but this is what I wrote about it at the time.

Lukacs argues that the twentieth century was a short one, starting with the guns of 1914 and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. He argues that the defining nature of the twentieth century was not the Cold War, but instead nationalism, which led to Nazism and explains why the USSR fractured. He clearly distinguishes between nationalism (i.e. ‘the people) and patriotism (‘i.e. ‘the country’). He predicts the re-emergence of Germany as a world power after a period of contrition, and expresses scepticism over the idea of a pan-stage, pan-national Europe. This is a mixture of history and the personal as he writes in the first person about his return to his native Hungary after the fall of the Soviet Union. Quite difficult to read, perhaps because he is a historian’s historian.

It seems that I wasn’t too impressed with Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2004). How interesting- I now actually pay to subscribe to his meditation and philosophy podcast ‘Waking Up’. However, I wrote in my reading journal back in September 2005:

A book full of the piss and vinegar of self-conviction, Harris characterizes all religions as lacking reason, and moderates as culpable as fundamentalists in their acceptance of the inconsistency of ‘sacred’ texts. All religions are criticized, but especially Islam, which he sees as particularly provocative of violence. He does not deny that there is a ‘spiritual’, as distinct from ‘religious’ impulse, but argues that this comes from meditation rather than text. While I agreed with much of his argument, I found his know-it-allness and intolerance of nuance to be off-putting, and his trenchant criticism of Islam in particular to be too strident.

Finally I end up back in my own country and current politics with Katharine Murphy’s The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics (2020). This is part of the Quarterly Essay publishing stable, and as Politics Editor for The Guardian, she writes from a current events political perspective. This meant that she had to jettison her original plans for this issue:

Journalism has long been described as the first draft of history and that’s certainly the case with Katharine Murphy’s latest Quarterly Essay The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics. The arrangements for the Quarterly Essays are usually locked in a year ahead of time, and Katharine Murphy thought at first that she would be writing a profile of Australia’s unexpected Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. But in this Year of Madness, events overtook her and instead of writing an essay based solely on his personality, she interweaves it with a chronology of the unfolding of the COVID pandemic and the politics it has engendered. (See my review here)

Economic dislocation, war, terrorism, plague…. what a list!

Six degrees of separation: between ‘No-one is Talking about This’ and ….

As usual, I haven’t read the starting book for Six Degrees of Separation for February. This is a meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best where she chooses the starting book, and then you link six other books that trigger an association in some way and see where you end up. The starting book is Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This.

I haven’t read it, but I do know that it’s about communication over the internet, which made me think of Susan Johnston’s recent epistolary novel From Where I Fell (my review here). Two women, one in America and the other in Australia, begin communicating via email when an email is mis-addressed. The book is written entirely in email exchanges. The younger Australian correspondent is voluble and often heedless, whereas the older American is abrupt, snippy and just as heedless in her own way.

In fact, the older woman reminded me of Elizabeth Strout’s wonderful Olive Kitteridge. Set in Maine, this is a series of linked short stories and Olive appears in each one of them- sometimes as the main character, sometimes just as a walk-on figure in the background. Olive is a large, acerbic, retired teacher who has lived in her small town for many years and taught mathematics to every young person in town. She’s brusque and clumsy, and you can see why her son has distanced himself from her and why people don’t really like her very much. (My review here). Really- the book cover is so inappropriate for this book.

Olive is an unusual name, and it’s even more unusual teamed with ‘Pink’. Olive Pink, as Julie Marcus shows us through in her biography The Indomitable Miss Pink, was both an anthropologist and a Northern Territory-based eccentric, although the latter has tended to overshadow the former in popular memory. She died in 1975. She is spoken of as a tall, erect woman, dressed in white, with a long skirt and parasol. Neighbours and little children remembered her derelict hut with its idiosyncratic ‘museum’ and a straggly garden where she grew flowers for sale. Pastoralists saw her, and her activities, as a threat to their leases. Arrernte and Warlpiri had their own stories of Olive Pink from the time that she lived amongst them in the 1930s and 1940s, learning their language and customs. This is a terrific biography, although it’s probably hard to track down. (My review here)

Another elderly ‘Miss’ is Judith Kratz, the main character in Andrea Bobotis’ The Last List of Miss Judith Kratz. Miss Kratz 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. 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. (See my review here)

Miss Judith Kratz lived in South Carolina and the book is steeped in the culture and history of the American South. For me, the South is synonymous with Mississippi and so I follow comedian John Safran over there in Murder in Mississippi. As part of his documentary program Race Relations he cultivated a friendship with white supremacist, Richard Barrett, and found himself surprised that he actually liked him more than he thought he would. Safran’s nose for a good story twitched when he learned that Richard Barrett had been murdered by a young Afro-American teenager. And,so he took himself off to Mississippi to chase the story. The book reads rather like a podcast, and it was awarded the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime in 2014. (My review here).

Another murder, but this time in Georgia, is found in Nathan Harris’ The Sweetness of Water. Set immediately after the Civil War, Old Ox is a small town in Georgia, staunchly Confederate during the war, and resentful and broken afterwards. Emancipation has seen formerly enslaved people suddenly free, but without resources, money or plans. Many of them stay in Old Ox, some still living and working for their former owners, others building shanties under the eaves and in the alley-ways of the buildings in the town. Formerly enslaved, but now emancipated, Landry and Prentiss are hiding out in the woods where they are discovered by George Walker, a small-scale white farmer. They agree to work on George’s farm, planting peanuts, in return for shelter in the barn, food and a wage. They had been enslaved on a nearby plantation, and the cruelty of the owner, Ted Morton, had stripped Landry of speech. The brothers dream of finding their mother, who had been sold, and now that they can earn some money, they have a chance of doing so. This is a beautifully told book. It has a slightly formal, 19th century lilt to the language and it captures well this liminal time, when the gaping newness of Emancipation had not yet solidified into inevitability of Reconstruction. (My review here)

I started off with an American book and I ended up with an American book. And how fitting that I should start and finish with two books that were nominated for the Booker Prize in 2021.