Category Archives: Six Degrees

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.

Six degrees of separation: from Rules of Civility to…..

First Saturday of first month in a New Year: it must be Six Degrees of Separation day. To see how this works, head over to Essentially it’s a free association game where you link a given title, in this case Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility with other books that you have read.

As usual, I have not read the starting book but I have just finished Towles’ wonderful A Gentleman in Moscow. But as I haven’t blogged it yet, I’ll take a different tack, looking at the ideas of rules and civility in their different forms.

A book with a similar injunction on behaviour is How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell. Actually, it’s not Bakewell telling you how to live, but Michel de Montaigne, the prototype blogger, who doodled around philosophical questions in his ‘Essays’ in the sixteenth century.

This book, How to Live, is a biography in the quirky and digressive spirit of Montaigne too.  It, like Montaigne, takes the question “how to live?” and distills twenty answers that Montaigne might have given, as prisms onto Montaigne the man and his work. (See my review here)

Writers are quite fond of telling us how to live and what to do, and the wonderful Elizabeth von Arnim was no exception. Elizabeth von Arnim’s work was my discovery of 2021 and I really enjoyed Gabrielle Carey’s Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim. The author, who was going through a rather rough patch in her life, decided to seek out von Arnim’s advice about happiness because so many of the characters in her books revelled in it.

So, the book is a search for Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles for Happiness, which she nicely presents as a single page certificate at the end of the book. She finds nine: freedom, privacy, detachment, nature and gardens, physical exercise, a kindred spirit, sunlight, leisure and creativity. Each of these is discussed in turn throughout the book, appearing as a subheading in a book without chapters. This is not just a one-way distillation of wisdom from on high. Carey brings her own life to the search, particularly with the concept of ‘privacy’ which recent events prior to embarking on the book had brought to the front of her own consciousness. (My review here)

The injunction to Come On Shore and We Will Kill You and Eat You All: An Unlikely Love Story is a fairly clear directive on how to live, or at least how to not die. You might not guess it from the title, but it is a combination of memoir and a discussion of border-crossings in colonialism and personal life when an American academic marries Seven, a Maori man, and has three children with him.

She is an American academic, based in Melbourne to write her doctoral thesis, and when she meets and marries Seven, she finds herself enmeshed in Maori family and community obligations that she both observes and critiques as a border-crosser. She is quite open about the fact that there are values and responses that she does not share, or even completely understand, and she feels conflicted about the historical trajectory that has seen her New England family amass wealth and status over another disenfranchised people, the American native. She can see the parallels in her own story, and that of the history of Seven’s family and culture. (My review here)

Not quite so graphic is the concept of ‘good’ behaviour as a marker of ‘civilization’ as spelled out in Penny Russell’s Savage or Civilized: Manners in Colonial Australia. She’s not talking about ‘politeness’ as described in the etiquette manuals that flooded the British Empire, but how manners played out in the everyday lives of individuals, in the way that we acknowledge and respect the humanity of others (or not).

Not everybody cared about manners, but this book concentrates on those who did. It explores what she calls four ‘contexts’: the pastoral frontier; convict society; the domestic world and the new public space that opened up in the the latter part of the nineteenth century. The book is not necessarily chronological, as these ‘contexts’ were continuous throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth century time period, but there is nonetheless a chronological trajectory in the narrative. (My review here)

We can see the concept of ‘rules for civility’ being played out in the life of Anna Murray Powell, the wife of the Chief Justice of the Kings Bench in Upper Canada (i.e. Toronto) in the early 19th century in Katherine McKenna’s A Life of Propriety: Anna Murray Powell and her family 1744-1849. Despite her insistence on ‘propriety’ the good judge and his wife had a series of dud children including her young daughter who became caught up in a highly-scandalous infatuation with an eminent lawyer.

Mrs William Dummer Powell,
Toronto Public Library

The most fascinating chapter was that concerning the ‘unnatural’ daughter, Anne Murray Powell Junior. It is a very nineteenth-century take on the difficulties with parenting a wilful and troubled adolescent daughter. The story of Anne Jnr.’s infatuation with John Beverley Robinson, the future attorney-general, has been told by other historians, but I suspect not with the sensitivity that McKenna brings to the situation. It all ends tragically, and although the expectations and language of these unyielding 19th ‘pillars of society’ 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).

But it’s not only 19th century figures who tell us how to live. Jumping right into our current day is Yuval Noah Harari in his 21 Lessons for the 21st century. Actually the 21 lessons are just chapter headings in a book of five parts: (1)The Technological Challenge; (2) The Political Challenge; (3) Despair and Hope; (4) Truth; (5) Resilience.

This book felt like a series of essays, a bit like a chocolate ripple cake concertinaed together with an introduction and bridging paragraph launching you off into the next essay. I thought that the first two parts of the book were much stronger than the other sections. Even though I am open to deepening my spirituality, his promotion of meditation just felt ‘off’ in this book.

One very sobering thought, though. My grandchild, due in late 2019/2020 has every chance of living into the 22nd century. I really fear for him/her. I don’t think that we’ll learn the 21 lessons here well enough to offer a world better than what we have now. (My review here)

And now that we have passed the first 21 years of the 21st century – Happy New Year full of reading delights!

Six degrees of separation: from Ethan Frome to…

It’s the first Saturday of the month again, and so it’s time for Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest. She chooses the starting book- in this case, Edith Wharton’s Etham Frome – and you think of six books linked in some way in your own mind: by the title, by the content, by theme, place of publication – whatever you want. It is a rare month when I have read the starting book and this month is no different: I have heard of it, but have not read it. But I do gather that it’s about a man called Ethan Frome, and so I’ll search through my reviews for fiction books with a man’s name as the title. I’ll stick to fiction, because biographies would be too easy.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize in 2020. The book is a thinly disguised autobiography. Shuggie Bain is the youngest of three children, always fastidious and conscious of appearance. The woman whose appearance meant most to him was his mother, Agnes, whose attention to her dress, hair and makeup masked increasingly futile attempts to disguise her alcoholism. The book is set in a Glasgow ravaged by Thatcher’s economic policies. It tells a narrative well, its use of dialogue is good, the emotional tenor of Shuggie’s bond with his mother is nuanced, and Stuart imagines himself sensitively into Agnes’ befuddled mind. It is all of these things, but for me it didn’t have the literary heft that I would want a Booker Prize winner to have. (My review here).

It’s not really likely that you have heard of Bogle Corbet, written by land and emigration entrepreneur John Galt in 1833. It is a product of its time and taste, and rather forgettable. It comes as a three-volume edition, available through the Internet Archive and, dear me, if ever a format encouraged verbosity it must have been the three-volume novel. It is a thinly-disguised immigrant tract, aimed at the gentleman settler market encouraging them to emigrate to Canada, and although the fictional young Bogle travelled far from his Scottish origins- London, West Indies, back to Scotland, then Canada- not much seems to happen in this book. I had a particular academic reason for reading it, but unless you do too, it is probably best left languishing on the Internet Archive. (My review is here)

Mister Pip is actually the Pip of Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ in Lloyd Jones’ book. (Come to think of it, Charles Dickens was rather fond of the male-name title- David Copperfield, Martin Chuzzlewit etc) The character of Pip was rather incongruously brought to a village in Bougainville by Mr Watts, (nicknamed Pop-eye), the last remaining white man on Bougainville after the implementation of the blockade by Papua New Guinea in 1990 and the descent into civil war between the ‘rambos’ (village boys who joined the rebel insurgency) and the ‘redskins’ (PNG soldiers). Mr Watts was always an outsider. He was quite frankly eccentric, pushing his demented village wife around the village in a shopping trolley. But somehow he managed to interweave the experience of Pip and his great expectations into the shared knowledge of this small Pacific village. (My review is here)

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey is set in 1965 Charlie Bucktin, the bookish, nerdy, teacher’s son is startled by a knock at the louvres of his sleep-out when Jasper Jones, the town ‘bad boy’, calls him out into the backyard. Somehow or other Jasper Jones cajoles him into assisting with the disposal of the body of a young school acquaintance that Jasper found hanging from a tree in his special place in the bush. This young girl was Jasper’s secret girlfriend and Jasper is terrified that he will be blamed for her murder. Even though this book has garnered much praise, and found its way onto myriad secondary school reading lists, I wasn’t that impressed. There is a self-indulgence in lengthy digressions and internal dialogues, and an indulgence too in the number of themes the author crams into the book: first love, friendship, bullying, police brutality, racial prejudice, marriage breakup, incest, youth suicide, social exclusion. But perhaps you love it? Many people do… (My snarky review here)

The title of Amanda Lohrey’s A Short History of Richard Kline is a bit longer than just the name, but I’ll count it anyway. The blurb on the back of this book describes it as “a pilgrim’s progress for the here and now”. I can see the likenesses: Pilgrim’s Progress has Christian, its everyman character not unlike the eponymous Richard Kline in this book; Christian and Richard are both on a spiritual journey and quite frankly, just as with Bunyan’s book, not everyone is going to want to go along the path with Richard Kline either. I wasn’t enthusiastic about this book either and you can find yet another of my snarky reviews here.

Oh dear, there’s a lot of books here that I didn’t care much for, and I’m coming over as a bit of a moaner. I’d better close with a book that I did enjoy whole-heartedly. I really enjoyed Washington Black by Esi Edugyan where a young enslaved boy from the canefields of Barbados end up in places as diverse as the Arctic, Nova Scotia, England and Morocco. This book works on a big canvas, reminding me oddly of a Dickens novel in its scope. It crosses the globe, and it has big characters. It is at heart a quest novel, although shot through with yearning, injustice and beautiful description. (My very positive review is here).

Six degrees of separation: from ‘What are you going through?’ by Sigrid Nunez to….

First Saturday. Six Degrees of Separation Day. This meme, hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest involves Kate choosing a book title, then you linking the details and your reviews of six books which spring to mind. It is a rare month when I have read her starting book and this month is no exception. She chose What are you going through by Sigrid Nunez, which apparently deals with two friends and an assisted death.

Well, I haven’t read this book by Sigrid Nunez but I have read another of hers, which sounds remarkably similar in theme to Kate’s starting book. I then embark on a succession of books about suicide and death, so it’s a gloomy string of titles this time. You may not be in the mood for such unrelieved sadness.

Sigrid Nunez’s earlier book The Friend (2018) is constructed as a series of short paragraphs, addressed to an unnamed male friend who had recently committed suicide. These paragraphs have been written by a similarly unnamed female narrator who teaches creative writing at a university. The paragraphs to her friend are spoken in the second person “you”.

Another suicide is announced in the opening pages of historian Donna Merwick’s Death of a Notary (1999), the story of Janse, the Dutch-speaking notary in Albany, who commits suicide in the late 17th century, a number of years after the English have taken possession of New Amsterdam. The book is written in two halves, the first a conversational present-tense narrative of Janse’s life and death, and the second an extended form of footnotes which I described as “the historian with her hard-hat on”.

Johanna Adorjan’s An Exclusive Love (2010) tells us from the first pages that the author’s grandparents committed suicide together in 1991. The book examines their last day in detail, interspersed with a family history drawn together from the accounts of relatives and her grandparents’ surviving friends.

A Good Day to Die (1998) by Lisa Birnie is about death too, but involves a series of cases and interviews from McCulloch House, a palliative care centre attached to Monash Medical Centre, where Birnie was writer-in-residence. In a way, this does sound a little like Nunez’s What are you going through, but as I haven’t read it, I’m not sure. Written some 20 years before assisted dying legislation was passed in different states in Australia, I wonder how she would feel now.

A young writer, who died too soon is Georgia Blain and her amazing book The Museum of Words (2017). Dying with brain cancer, with a glioblastoma the size of a golf ball, she writes of the experience of her illness, threaded by perverse coincidence with the illnesses of her mentor, friend and human rights activist Rosie Scott, who was dying with exactly the same condition, and her mother who was dying with Alzheimers. This book is in many ways a love letter to all three of these women, to the act of writing, and in her final paragraph, an assertion of gratitude for life itself.

Finally, I feel I need a book with a more uplifting title at least. Dymphna Cusack’s Say No to Death (1951) is set in post-WWII Australia where a young woman, Jan, is diagnosed with tuberculosis, then an incurable disease. This is in the time before Medibank/Medicare, when much of the health spending was being directed towards returned soldiers, and when the discrepancy between private and public health treatment was stark. The book is dated, and is best read as social history, but I must say that it has stayed with me long after I read it.

What a depressing chain. What’s next month’s starting book? Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I just read the Wikipedia summary: it sounds similarly gloomy. I’ll have to work hard to think of more uplifting links.