Category Archives: Uncategorized

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Phosphorence’ to….

I haven’t read the starting book for Six Degrees of Separation in March. It’s Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence and it’s sitting beside the bed unread. In fact, I had to look up what phosphorescence actually IS and I find that it is a sort of light. So, for the March Six Degrees, I’ll go with the theme of ‘light’. You can read the ‘rules’ for Six Degrees of Separation on Kate’s Books are my Favourite and Best website but essentially it’s a form of trigger association based on the books that you have read. So, thinking of light….

I really like John Banville’s intelligence and the way that he makes you work hard as a reader. In Ancient Light, he effortlessly handles two narrative lines, while expanding your vocabulary. I must confess that I didn’t realize that it was part of a trilogy – and a trilogy that I had read, no less!- and I felt rather foolish when I realized that the books were all related.

I was rather less impressed by Ellen Van Neerven’s Heat and Light, a collection of short stories arranged around three themes: Heat, Water and Light. It was a bit of a ‘curate’s egg’ of a collection- very good in parts, but some stories made less of an impression.

I read Danielle Wood’s The Alphabet of Light and Dark before I started writing this blog. Set on a lighthouse on Bruny Island, it is a story within a story where an aspiring author returns to the lighthouse once tended by her great-great-grandfather and decides to write about her great-great aunt. There are lots of descriptions of landscape and reflections on history.

M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans is set on a lighthouse, too, but this time in the 1920s on the Western Australian coast. A husband returns from the war a changed man, and his wife Isabel cannot understand the existential changes that have been wrought on her husband. Their marriage is wracked by tragedy and loss. There’s a Jodi-Picoult-esque ethical dilemma, which was concluded a little too rapidly for my liking.

There was no rushed ending in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. The third of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, it’s the brilliant culmination of a marvellous work of historical fiction. You know how the story is going to end (not well), but Mantel keeps you engrossed right to the last page.

And finally, someone who could barely remember seeing light: Helen Keller. Light in My Darkness is her compilation of autobiographical writing. Originally called My Religion, it’s pretty turgid in places and I found it easier to skip the chapters on Swedenborgianism. Frankly, I wouldn’t bother reading this and instead read Dorothy Herrman’s Helen Keller: A Life.

So, mainly fiction this month and a rather crabby collection of reviews. Rather ironic really, given that the theme I had chosen for myself was ‘light’!

My best reads for 2020

How odd. Of the seven books I scored highest for 2020 (unexact science though it is), only one was written by an Australian author.

  1. Casey Cep Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. (2019)
  2. Jeff Sparrow Communism: A Love Story (the one Australian book) (2007)
  3. Julia Blackburn Time Song: Searching for Doggerland (2019)
  4. Hilary Mantel The Mirror and the Light (2020)
  5. Nino Haratischwili The Eighth Life: (for Brilka) (2014, in translation 2019)
  6. Robert Penn Warren All the King’s Men (1946)
  7. Marlon James The Book of Night Women (2009)

The gender divide was pretty even: four women, three men. Four fiction, three non-fiction. Four written in 2019 or 2020, three written earlier. Three of them (Mantel, Haratischwili and Warren) were door-stoppers. Perhaps in this very strange year, there was something to be said for burrowing into a very long read.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020 – wrap up

Well, actually, I finished it a while ago because I am well beyond the twenty I nominated. Anyway, here are the books alphabetically by surname that I read for the challenge this year:

Michelle Arrow The Seventies: the personal, the political and the making of modern Australia

Maggie Black Up Came a Squatter: Niel Black of Glemorniston

Geraldine Brooks People of the Book

Sue Course Lost Letters from Vienna

Sophie Cunningham City of Trees : Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest

Amanda Curtin Kathleen O’Connor of Paris

Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell Searching for Charlotte

Vicki Hastrich Night Fishing

Kerry Highley Dancing in my Dreams: Confronting the Spectre of Polio

Jess Hill See What You Made Me Do: Power Control and Domestic Violence

Chloe Hooper Arsonist: A Mind on Fire

Jacqueline Kent Vida: A Woman for Our Time

Judith Lucy Drink, Smoke, Pass Out

Julie Marcus The Indomitable Miss Pink

Catherine McKinnon Storyland

Katherine Murphy The End of Certainty: Scott Morrison and Pandemic Politics (Quarterly Essay #79)

Brenda Niall Friends and Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers

Favel Parrett There was Still Love

Cassandra Pybus Truganini

Margaret Simons Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray-Darling Basin (Quarterly Essay #77)

Leigh Straw After the War: Returned Soldiers and the Mental and Physical Scars of WWI

Laura Tingle The High Road: What Australia can learn from New Zealand (Quarterly Essay #80)

Helen Trinca Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John

Clare Wright Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australian Women Publicans

Only three fiction out of 24. The dominance of non-fiction is probably because I’m conscious of keeping the ‘history’ numbers up in the AWW History, Memoir and Biography Round-Ups that I compile.

Other stats? I read 24 Australian women writers compared with 9 Australian male writers. I read more Australian literature (33 books) compared to international fiction (28 books). Of those 28 international reads, 18 were written by women and 11 written by men.

Overall, I didn’t read as much this year as I thought that I would have given that I had 112 day lockdown. I just didn’t seem to be able to settle, and much of the year just slid away from me.

But I’m up for joining the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021, and perhaps this time I’ll aim for a little more fiction in my life.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 December

99% Invisible. Do you remember when you first used the Internet? I don’t. I do remember using Netscape on a little rectangular block Apple computer, but I don’t think that I actually realized that it was the Internet. I can remember using bulletin boards, and I was bemused by all this talk of Internet 2.0. The episode The Lost Cities of Geo looks at Geocities, a site that used the spatial metaphor of a neighbourhood, with streets and blocks and addresses, as a way of conceptualizing the internet for new users. By 1998 it was the third most visited site on the internet but by 2009 Geocities was about to be wiped out. Except that a number of volunteer internet archivists tried to rescue as much as they could.

Background Briefing (ABC) Melbourne has only recently come out of a 112 day lockdown. There were certainly failures especially with the hotel quarantine system where the whole disaster started, and also with contract tracing. But with contract tracing, you are dealing with human beings who, for any number of reasons, may not be completely truthful. How Contract Tracers Confront Lies on the COVID frontline looks at the changes that have been made to the contract tracing system. At least positions weren’t so locked-in and egos so fragile that changes couldn’t be made.

The History Listen (ABC) Silence at the Sugar Mill is a family history story about Granny Ninnes, a small, dark, affectionate, card-loving grandmother whose family origins in Samoa were denied by her children, and remained largely unknown to her later North Queensland family.

In Our Time (BBC). Hah! Poor old Melvyn Bragg, having only women on the panel this week! I had never heard of Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem. After the first crusade, the mainly Frankish (i.e. French) invaders decided to create a kingdom in the European vein, and arranged amongst themselves who the King was to be. Melisende’s father came to the kingship in rather suspicious circumstances, and was determined that his eldest daughter would be Queen after him (only because he had no sons). When Melisende married Fulk from Anjou, she then had to resist his attempts to take over completely, and after her husband Fulk died, she then had to battle her son. I had no idea about any of this. There’s so much I don’t know.

Moocing-around a bit more

Well, we’ve finally been released out of lockdown, but I still had a Future Learn course that I had enrolled in that I wanted to finish. It’s called History of Slavery in the British Caribbean, and it was presented by both the University of the West Indies and the University of Glasgow (fitting, because there were many Scottish plantation owners). It was very good. I looked at slavery in the British Caribbean – particularly in British Guiana – for my thesis, and I learned a lot from the course. The course was produced in 2020 so it was brought right up to date with the recent Windrush scandal in the UK, Black Lives Matter and COVID. I hadn’t thought about the significance of language: ‘enslaved’ rather than ‘slave’. Well worth doing

And speaking of slavery, I also watched a webinar produced by the History Council of South Australia called Pre- and Early-Colonial South Australia’s Slavery Connections. There were three speakers: Cameron Coventry, Philip Jones (author of Ochre and Rust, which I must read some day) and librarian Beth Robertson who’ wrote the book’ on Oral History and has been undertaking her own family history. It hadn’t occurred to me that the compensation payments for slave-holders (not the slaves, mind you, only their former owners) hit the pockets of British investors at much the same time as South Australia was established. The speakers concentrated on British MP Raikes Currey, who provided much of the funding behind the South Australian Company from his family slaveholdings; George Fife Angas whose family traded in mahogany from British Honduras and who agitated for the release of indigenous enslaved in Honduras but not enslaved Africans; and Edward Stirling, born on a Jamaican slave plantation to a woman of culture, even though it was not spoken of. It will be online at some stage, I believe.

One of the good things about lockdown is that I have ‘attended’ many more webinars, book launches, discussions etc. than I would have normally. I hope that an online ‘presence’ at such events remains a possibility in the future.

‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith

2016, 272 p.

This is the first book in a quartet of stories written in real-time. Written in 2016, and set in England after the Brexit vote, it moves back and forwards in time as Elizabeth, a 32-year-old junior lecturer in Art History at a London University, visits her elderly neighbour (very elderly- 101!) Daniel Gluck as he lies dying in hospital. She had always been close to Daniel, who recognized her intelligence and sensitivity, even though her mother disapproved of the relationship because she assumed that he was gay. It was Daniel who introduced her to the works of the real-life 1960s British Pop artist Pauline Boty, who died in 1966 at the age of 28, with her works unrecognized for many years. The story alternates between Daniel’s prolonged dreams as he drifts towards death, and Elizabeth’s memories of her childhood with this kind neighbour who opened up the world for her.

The book reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in its quotidian Englishness. As with Woolf, Smith reveals her strong narrative muscles in what seems a simple story in which little happens. The pettiness of bureaucracy and the barely-disguised boorishness of the Brexit vote, the threadbare nature of casualized work, exist alongside a reflection on how hard it is to really live, and how hard it is to die, too.

I’m looking forward to reading the other books in the series too. I love the idea that they are written in real-time as events are happening, with the author just as oblivious to their meaning and significance as her characters are. And boy, can she write! It’s confident, masterly writing, in a short book with little actual plot, that makes me realize how much of what I read is neither confident nor masterly.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25 -30 November 2020

99% Invisible Remember when we could fly? Remember the safety card in the pocket of the seat in front? My daughter-in-law must not listen to In the Unlikely Event, which looks at the design of the Safety Card on airlines. The first safety cards were completely prose, without diagrams, lest the passengers should be deterred from flying. The reality is that most people do not read the card, and that in any crash, many passengers are frozen with fear into immobility. Many design considerations go into the Safety Car (pictures only; highlighting colours that are significant; making them specific that that particular aircraft; depicting effort required e.g. opening the emergency door). So, if I ever get to fly again, I’ll look at it with new eyes.

Rough Translation (NPR) There’s a language warning at the start of Radical Rudeness and yes, it sure is offensive. Really offensive. Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan poet, sacked from her university job, took on the President Yoweri Museveni with very offensive poetry, and ended up in jail. She has since served her sentence, but is a damaged, dangerous woman. Very confronting.

Hay Literary Festival. This podcast, (well actually it’s a YouTube video) from 2014, is of Tom Holland talking about his (then) recent translation of Herodotus’ Histories. He’s an engaging, fluent speaker and he’ll make you want to race straight to your nearest library or bookshop to buy a copy.

West Midlands History. I did quite a bit of local research on the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic here in my local suburb in Melbourne, and it was interesting to hear the experience in UK with Spanish Flu Comes To Birmingham. In UK, the first wave occurred in 1918 while the war was still under way, with food shortages and all medical resources directed towards the war.

My Marvellous Melbourne. I really do enjoy these podcasts produced by Andy May at Uni of Melbourne with members of the Melbourne History Workshop. Episode 3 of My Marvellous Melbourne looks at the history of bells in the Melbourne soundscape, an oral history recorded in the 1980s where an old Preston resident Evan Luly remembers back to post WWI. He and his daughter Lexie were keen photographers. Their photos between 1950 and 1970 have been digitized and are available as the Luly collection at https://omeka.cloud.unimelb.edu.au/melbourne-history/collections/show/3 The program finishes with the case of Ivy Cogden who was found not guilty of murder when she attacked her 19 year old daughter with an axe in Oakleigh in 1950. The jury found that she killed her daughter while she was sleepwalking, and committed her to Mont Park where she died in 1952.

The Last Archive. Episode 2: Detection of Deception will take you on a wild ride. It starts off with the inventor of the lie detector William Moulton Marston, who hoped to have his invention accepted by a court of law in 1920 in the case of James Frye, a young African-American man accused of murder. But this is not just a podcast about a courtcase. It turns the lens back onto William Moulton Marston, with lots of surprises!

‘Storyland’ by Catherine McKinnon

2017, 369p.

I will confess that I spent the first half of this book being angry at it (a rather futile endeavour, I must admit). The ‘hook’ of the book is its pyramidal structure where each separate story builds chronologically onto the next one, with a link between each story until it reaches an apex, then goes back down again, revisiting each story in descending order. It was used to brilliant effect by David Mitchell in his Cloud Atlas in 2004, a book which I absolutely loved. Mitchell was able to draw you to his characters emotionally, so that you felt reluctant to let them go when the next story commenced. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case in Catherine McKinnon’s book, which followed a similar structure, even to the point of having a dystopian story as the apex story. As a shorter and ‘thinner’ book (both in page numbers and in imaginative complexity), there was not time to develop the same engagement, and the choice of characters felt a little didactic rather than creative. So, for much of the book, I felt cross that it was such a poor, derivative shadow of an idea.

Where McKinnon’s book differs from Mitchell’s is that the stories are all set in the same geographical location: around Lake Illawarra (south of Sydney Cove and Botany Bay, near Wollongong). As the title and subtitle (‘the land is a book, waiting to be read’) suggest, the land is the unifying feature, although birds and a stone axe are also literary talismans that appear in each story. The stories in her triangle are:

  1. Will Martin – 1796 based the real-life William Martin who accompanied Matthew Flinders on his second Tom Thumb journey of exploration
  2. Hawker 1822- based on a real-life court case where a convict, Seth Hawker, was tried and acquitted of murdering an Aboriginal woman on a farm at Exmouth in the Illawarra district
  3. Lola 1900 – when farming came to the Illawarra
  4. Bel 1998 – when the suburbs have reached the lake, and indigenous art has become commercialized. Children, not quite understanding what they are witnessing, are exploring their neighbourhood and are befriended by a young indigenous woman in an abuse relationship
  5. Nada 2033-2717. Nada is the ‘hinge’ story, where an apocalyptic climate event has wiped out the Illawarra area. A survivor, Nada, has had her DNA and brain data stored, and 684 years later technology has given her a new body and is trying to piece together her memories.

and then, back the other way again……

I said that I begrudged the book for the first half. For me, the breakthrough came with the Nada story. Clambering back down through the stories that had been set up in the first half of the book, at first I found it a little difficult to remember the scenario that had been set up and had to flip back to the matching story in the first half. However, if the apex Nada story was about the reconstruction of an unfiltered memory, in each of the ‘climb down’ stories there was an obfuscation of the truth, an agreement to twist the narrative just slightly. As well as this reflection on history, there was the underlying thread of the land, against which her characters battled, and then tamed, only to be defeated by it again. The land is beautifully described, in its untamed and strange menace, and its persistence amongst suburbia. Indigenous people are always there, right from the voyage of the Tom Thumb II, and the telling of their stories becomes caught up in false narratives, false testimonies and false merchandise.

And so, I ended the book with an appreciation of its themes, rather than the characters as such. I still regret the similarity with Cloud Atlas, and there was an earnestness about the selection of her characters as representations of a historical phase, rather than complete in themselves. Nonetheless its intent in telling the story of the Illawarra, a land like a book, with its omissions and evasions, was well realized.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

I have included this book on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17- 24 November 2020

Rough Translations There’s much talk of trolling and cancelling online, and the episode Dream Boy and the Poison Fans looks at the story of Chinese celebrity Xiao Zhan, whose fans took trolling to a new level. Xiao Zhan was riding the celebrity wave, earning huge sums for product endorsements, until a story on a fan fiction website prompted his fans to turn on the fan fiction site. Supporters of the fan fiction site then attacked the products that he had endorsed. In the end, it was Xiao Zhan who suffered most. The ‘reporting’ culture of China’s past seems to have revived, now using social media.

99% Invisible How perverse! Ecologically fragile peat bogs are drained in order to plants trees to soak up carbon, thereby releasing the carbon from the bog! For the Love of Peat looks at peat bogs, how they are formed, and ecological programs that threaten or protect them.

Nothing on TV. I do enjoy Robyn Annear with her quirky little podcast program! Deadwood Dick and the Picture Show Panic looks at the moral panic about boys reading comics and watching the picture shows. She then goes on to explain the craze for the ‘movies’, all over Australia, where the audience consisted almost entirely of children under 14 who would save up their bottles and threepences to go to the movies – often! By post WWI, there was more restriction on the morals depicted in the movies. Fascinating!

Dan Snow’s History Hit The title How Deep History Swung the US election sounds pretty out-there, given that Deep History deals with the distant past of human history, integrating archaeology, anthropology, geology, primatology and genetics. What Lewis Dartnell is arguing is that the geological construction of America has encouraged particular industries (cotton growing; iron; coal) which in turn has political implications for party affiliations.

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

2019, 415p.

I read The Handmaid’s Tale back in 1997, before I started this blog. I can remember turning the last page and cursing that everything was left so indeterminate. Well, 36 years later, we finally have closure! Of course, in between there has been the enormously successful HULU series which started in 2017, and the red cloaks and white bonnets have been incorporated into protest iconography, especially in response to abortion rights and the Trump presidency.

The Testaments is told in alternating chapters, that are labelled either ‘The Ardua Hall Holograph’ or ‘Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A or 369B’. The Holograph is addressed to an unknown reader, by a writer who does not know if it will ever be read. She introduces herself to us in the second segment:

I am well aware of how you must be judging me, my reader; if that is, my reputation has preceded me and you have deciphered who I am, or was. In my own present day I am a legend, alive but more than alive, dead but more than dead…. I’m a bugaboo used by the Marthas to frighten small children – If you don’t behave yourself, Aunt Lydia will come and get you!

p.32

And so we meet Aunt Lydia again, indelibly cast in my mind as the actress Anne Dowd. We learn more about the Aunts, who now need to recruit young missionaries to cross over into Canada to entice young women across to Gilead. As one of the four ‘founding’ Aunts, Aunt Lydia has power, although the founding Aunts have decided to publicly defer to the Commanders. In the pre-Gilead world, Aunt Lydia was originally a Judge- which is rather uncanny with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, a member of ‘People of Praise’ group that used to have a religious rank ‘handmaid’. (This article explains that another Catholic charismatic group ‘People of Hope’ who also used the term ‘handmaid’ may have influenced Atwood’s original book). Through Aunt Lydia’s book, conveyed through Holograph, we learn what her experience was as Gilead became a Theocracy, how and why she became an Aunt, and how Gilead is sustained through the Aunts’ work.

It takes a little while to work out the Witness Testimonies. It becomes clear that there are two witnesses, although their narrative voices are very (and too) similar. I won’t say how they fit into the story, but I became increasingly apprehensive about why they were designated ‘Witness Testimonies’. The ending of the book very much echoed the epilogue of the original Handmaid’s Tale.

The visual imagery and architecture of the HULU Handmaid’s Tale streamed series is so striking that this book seemed particularly devoid of description. I can’t remember whether that was the case for the original Handmaid’s Tale book or not. Atwood has worked as consulting producer on the series, and perhaps she – like us – has internalized the ‘look’ of Gilead so much that there is no need to spell it out.

I bought the hardcover version, which is really beautiful. It has eschewed the red and white of the handmaid’s uniform for dark blue, bright green and white. The endpapers (is that the right word? the inside of the cover) are a clever visual trick that switches between handmaid and girl with a ponytail. It made me remember how much I enjoy reading a real, hard-cover, printed book.

I finished the original The Handmaid’s Tale thinking “NOW what happens??” Margaret Atwood doesn’t leave her readers so unsatisfied this time – you know exactly what happened. And she has left plenty of space for Series 4, Series 5…as many Series as they want.

This book was awarded the 2019 Booker Prize, even before it was released here in Australia. I don’t know whether it really deserved it in its own right as a literary work, as distinct from a cultural phenomenon. It’s well constructed and satisfying but the writing is rather pedestrian, although that may well reflect the paucity of intellectual life in Gilead and post-Second-Civil-War Canada. I can’t help thinking that it received the Booker through gratitude that there finally was a sequel, and for the perspicacity that created a Gilead that we have more cause to fear now than in 1985.

My rating: 8.5 /10

Sourced from: purchased as a pre-lockdown indulgence.